BLOOMINGDALE, N.J. (CBS 2) – A NJ Transit worker was fired from his job after he burned pages of the Koran on his day off. While most say the burning was an intolerant act, some are questioning whether his constitutional rights were violated.
Derek Fenton was not on the job when he tore out pages from the Koran and lit them on fire. It happened at a protest near the site of the proposed mosque near ground zero, reports CBS 2’s Christine Sloan.
Soon after, the 39-year-old was fired from his job as an assistant train coordinator.
On Wednesday, Fenton didn’t answer the door at his house in Bloomingdale, where the American flag flies prominently.
But some, like State Sen. Ray Lesniak, who is also an attorney, were coming to his defense, saying his actions are protected by the constitution no matter how irresponsible.
“What he did was self-centered. He didn’t care about anyone else but himself and he put people lives in jeopardy, but it had nothing to do with his responsibilities on the job. And most importantly, it’s protected by the First Amendment,” said Lesniak, D-Union County.
NJ Transit, however, disagrees, and said in a statement: “Mr. Fenton’s public actions violated NJ Transit’s code of ethics. NJ Transit concluded that Mr. Fenton violated his trust as a state employee and therefore was dismissed.”
Sloan asked the agency for its code of ethics, but no one got back to her on Wednesday.
In Fenton’s neighborhood, residents had opinions, too.
“Part of being in America is that you have freedom of religion, freedom of speech. Would I burn the Koran? No, because they are extremists, yes. But there are people who follow that are not like, but should not get fired over something … I don’t see how they could have violated his rights that way,” resident Christine Gaccione said.
When asked about the burning, another person said, “It’s just paper.”
Conservative Florida pastor Terry Jones tried to burn a Koran on Sept. 11 and military officials told him it would threaten the lives of soldiers in Afghanistan.
As for Fenton, because he isn’t talking we’re not sure what he plans on doing and whether there were other issues that led to his termination at NJ Transit.
The American Civil Liberties Union said a person cannot be fired for off-the-job political expression when employed in a non-policy-related role.