By Michael E. Miller
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It isn't unusual for total strangers to stroll unannounced into Stephen Larue's workplace and take off their clothes right in front of him, sometimes down to the very last stitch. In fact, at times Stephen Larue's office is filled with hundreds of completely naked people -- talking, laughing, eating, drinking, and playing.
And he doesn't like it one bit, because he can't do his work with all those bare-assed people running around.
Stephen Larue is a part-time Metro-Dade lifeguard at Haulover Beach. In the past two years, the northernmost section of the beach has become a de facto nude-bathing area. In response to the beach's growing popularity, the Department of Parks and Recreation erected a portable lifeguard tower in the area earlier this year. The head of the beach patrol also instituted a policy requiring the dozen or so part-time lifeguards to alternate shifts at the tower. Larue got nervous.
In a May 3 letter to Metro-Dade's labor management department, Larue claimed to have witnessed "adult male full frontal/genital nudity," "men hugging, kissing, and fondling each other's buttocks," and "nude women exposing their genital area to children, women, and unsuspecting beach patrons." Claiming the nudists were "in violation of my moral, ethical, and religious/Christian beliefs," Larue asked that he not be assigned to guard that particular stretch of beach. Larue, a five-year veteran Metro lifeguard, was joined in his protest by a colleague, Jeffrey Carson, who also cited religious reasons for his reluctance to take a shift at the nude beach.
The two lifeguards haven't reported back to work since. And according to parks spokeswoman Lauren Gail, they may soon be fired.
"I was raised in a strict moralistic environment where I didn't feel it appropriate to be in the presence of naked people all day long," Larue explains. (Jeffrey Carson declined to comment for this article.) "I was taught that that was unacceptable. Imagine if your office was filled with naked people. It could be real offensive."
The pair contacted the National Legal Foundation, a Virginia Beach, Virginia, Christian organization that specializes in religious freedom issues. On May 21 the NLF wrote to Bill Bird, director of the Metro-Dade Parks and Recreation Department. "Neither Mr. Carson nor Mr. Larue seek to circumvent their responsibilities as employees," stated the foundation's executive director, Robert Skolrood. "They are willing to be assigned to any other lifeguard post and merely seek reasonable accommodation of their religious beliefs."
Larue arrived at work May 22, only to find that he had been scheduled to guard the nude beach. He refused. According to Lauren Gail, no lifeguards volunteered to replace him, so Larue's boss reprimanded him and sent him home without pay. (The tower at the nude beach is partially open to the elements and less comfortable than the permanent towers, making it one of the least desirable posts along the beach, say several Haulover lifeguards.) Larue, however, claimed in a grievance filed with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees that four other lifeguards had volunteered to work at the nude beach in his place. "The unfortunate thing is that Haulover Beach has lost two very competent lifeguards," comments union steward Chris Taylor.
But Carson and Larue haven't gone out of their way to improve their own bargaining position in the matter. Earlier this month, Larue failed to show up for a scheduled meeting with the department's personnel director about his grievance. And, Gail says, Carson forged a doctor's note to get out of work. "We have a duty to protect the swimmers in the clothes-optional beach area," says Gail. "[Carson and Larue] are allowing their opinions to get in the way of lifesaving. When it comes to lifesaving, you don't discriminate as to whether someone has a bathing suit on or not."
Regardless, all this banter about religion and nudity bothers Richard Mason. As president of South Florida Free Beaches, a local nudist association, he fears a moralist outcry might shut down the nude beach, which to him represents the fragile spoils of a hard-fought battle. The nudists aren't interested in offending anyone, Mason contends; they simply want a place to discreetly exercise their freedom of expression. "If the government provides golf courses for golfers and tennis courts for tennis players, then naturists feel that a small section of the beach should be set aside for their form of recreation," Mason asserts. "It's only fair." He points out that the nude beach at Haulover is among the safest and cleanest beaches in South Florida because its regulars police the nudist community themselves. (Mason has even distributed hundreds of leaflets to patrons describing proper "free-beach etiquette.") The nude beach is also one of the most popular; Mason estimates that as many as 1000 people sun their entire selves during peak hours on weekend days.
And the nudists are reclining on fairly solid legal ground. Police haven't troubled naturists in Dade since Metro-Dade police legal advisor Laurie Collins issued a memo this past year interpreting the laws regarding public nudity. Merely being nude, she wrote, is not a violation of Florida's nudity statute, section 800.03. The law does prohibit public nudity that is "lewd or lascivious," and someone publicly nude can theoretically be arrested for disorderly conduct under section 877.03, Carson added, "if all the elements of that crime are present."