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Woman sues former employer for religious discrimination

Title: Woman sues former employer for religious discrimination
Date: Monday, 4 December 2006
Publisher: Springfield Business Journal
Author: Matthew Wagner
Main source:

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A Springfield woman has alleged in a federal lawsuit that she was fired in 2004 from a Branson West company for refusing to convert to Scientology, the chosen religion of her boss and several co-workers.

Brianne Shahan filed the suit against Richmond Monroe Group Inc. in U.S. District Court last month. Shahan claims her former employer violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by allegedly pressuring her to divorce her husband and become a Scientologist.

According to its Web site, the Church of Scientology is based on the writings and philosophy of the late L. Ron Hubbard, who believed that humans are “immortal, spiritual beings” with unlimited capabilities.

The church has targeted Hollywood celebrities and converted such actors as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

Defendant: It’s groundless

Richmond Monroe’s attorneys — Paul King of Springfield and Jay Kirksey of Bolivar — denied Shahan’s claims in a formal response filed Nov. 30 and characterized the suit as “frivolous, unreasonable and groundless.”

According to its Web site, Richmond Monroe retrieves lost documents for the mortgage loan service industry along with its partner companies, American Release Corp., also in Branson West, and software manufacturer Rekon Technologies, in Valencia, Calif.

Shahan claims in the suit she was subjected to a “field auditor,” who attempted to convert her to Scientology on a daily or almost daily basis while working at the Branson West office, 15511 State Highway 13.

Shahan also claims she was forced by her employer to attend daily “church” sessions at work and that she was urged to divorce her husband.

Springfield attorney Eric Jensen of O’Reilly & Jensen LLC is representing Shahan.

“The defendant tried to force the plaintiff to divorce her husband because they believed he was a ‘suppressive personality,’ meaning in their view, he was possessed by an evil alien life form,” Jensen stated in the suit.

Neither Kirksey nor Jensen returned Springfield Business Journal’s calls before press time.

Shahan’s claims, if true, would be clear violations of Title VII, said Wes Scroggins, an assistant professor of management at Missouri State University’s College of Business Administration.

“If that actually happened, they have greatly overstepped their bounds,” Scroggins said, suggesting the alleged scenario borders on harassment.

Shahan was fired Nov. 1, 2004 — three days after notifying her superiors, including President Larry Roberts, that she would not divorce her husband or convert to Scientology, according to the suit. She later filed a religious discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which issued a right-to-sue letter earlier this year.

EEOC issues a right-to-sue letter when an investigation reveals there likely isn’t enough evidence to substantiate a complainant’s discrimination charge, said Sharron Blalock, a spokeswoman for the commission’s St. Louis District Office.

According to the suit, Shahan was fired for a “lack of production” in her department even though it was “quite profitable” when she was terminated. The suit also notes that she received numerous pay raises and promotions before she was fired.

Uncommon case

Title VII explicitly prohibits employers from forcing employees to participate — or not participate — in religious activity as a condition of employment. It also forbids employers from treating employees or applicants more or less favorably because of their religious beliefs or practices.

Employees who experience religious discrimination in the workplace should first file a grievance with the human resources department if one exists, Blalock said.

“Then you have a record you voiced the complaint,” she said.

If little or no progress is made, Blalock recommends contacting an EEOC investigator for further guidance. If the discrimination continues, employees are encouraged to file a formal complaint. Depending on the evidence, complaints may be dismissed, flagged for mediation or investigated, Blalock said.

Formal complaints from employees alleging religious coercion by their employer are rare in the St. Louis District, Blalock said. Complaints about employers unwilling to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or customs are more common, she said.

In fiscal 2005, EEOC received 2,340 charges of religious discrimination nationally, resolved 2,352 charges and recovered $6.1 million in monetary benefits — not including litigation — for complainants and other aggrieved individuals. Blalock did not have numbers available for the St. Louis District.