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► Prayer Meetings Lead To EEOC Lawsuit

The Charlotte District Office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has sued another North Carolina company, this time for alleged religious discrimination. The case serves as a reminder of the care that must be taken when an employee objects to the religious practices of the employer.

EEOC Suit

The EEOC’s lawsuit is against Aurora Renovations and Developments, LLC, a residential home service and repair company based in Greensboro. The lawsuit claims that since at least June 2020, the company required all employees to attend daily employer-led Christian prayer meetings. The meetings were conducted by the company owner and included Bible readings, Christian devotionals, and solicitation of prayer requests from employees.

The company’s owner took roll before some of the meetings and reprimanded employees who didn’t attend. When a construction manager asked to be excused from the prayer portion of the meetings in the fall of 2020, the company refused to accommodate his atheist religious beliefs, cut his pay, and eventually fired him. A few months later, in January 2021, Aurora terminated a customer service representative who stopped attending the prayer meetings because the meetings conflicted with her agnostic religious beliefs.

The EEOC alleges that Aurora violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs of the employees by excusing them from the meeting and then fired them in retaliation for opposing the meetings. The agency seeks monetary relief for the two employees, including compensatory and punitive damages. It also seeks injunctive relief against the company to end any ongoing discrimination based on religion and to take steps to prevent this unlawful conduct in the future.

Bottom Line

This lawsuit has just started, and the EEOC will need to prove its case in court. Undoubtedly, the company has its side of the story to tell. The allegations serve as an important reminder that employers cannot impose religious beliefs or practices on its employees, however, no matter how well intentioned the business might be.

Prayer meetings such as those described need to be entirely voluntary, and employees should be allowed to opt out of participation without subsequent discrimination or retaliation. Mixing business and religious discussions may send the message that participation in the religious discussions is a job requirement. Ideally, business and religious discussions should be clearly separated from each other.

By Richard Rainey Mr. Rainey is an attorney with Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP in Charlotte, North Carolina. He advises clients on hiring, firing, layoffs, employee discipline, employee defections, FMLA compliance, wage and hour classifications and other employment issues in order to avoid claims of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, unpaid overtime, whistleblowing and unsafe working environments.

[9/2022]

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