Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Religious Discrimination in Employment Case Settlement: Employer Compels Employee To Engage in Scientology Practices as a Condition of Employment

February 7th, 2020 | Steven Murray

Principles

Workplace law is clear: An employer may not unlawfully discriminate against an employee by compelling her to participate in a religious practice selected by the employer as a condition of employment.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,[1] prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on religion. Many states provide similar protections against religious discrimination in employment.

A Title VII claim exists to challenge an employer who subjects an employee to discrimination by imposing religious practices and beliefs on the employee. Title VII protects employees from discrimination because they do not share their employer’s religious beliefs.[2]

Title VII protects those who refuse to hold, as well as those who hold, specific religious beliefs.”[3]

A religious discrimination claim premised on an employer’s preference for a religious group is often referred to as a “reverse religious discrimination.”[4] In this claim, it is the religious beliefs of the employer, or the religious beliefs/practices  that the employer compels the employee to engage in and which the employee does not share, that constitutes the basis of the claim.[5]

In the context of religious discrimination because of an employer’s coercion, my also implicate Title VII claims for: (1) retaliation against an employee who objects to the employer’s required religious practices, and/or (2) a hostile work environment created by the employer based on religious.

Scientology in the Workplace

In January 2020, a Wyoming-based employer settled an employment discrimination lawsuit in federal court alleging forced Scientology practices and teachings on an employee and a subsequent discharge from employment when she objected.

In Julie L. Rohrbacher v. Teton Therapy, P.C.[6],  Ms. Rohrbacher worked as a receptionist in Teton Therapy’s office in Lander, Wyoming.  Teton Therapy is Wyoming-based physical and occupational therapy practice.

Specifically, the pleadings asserted that Teton Therapy:

  • Despite Ms. Rohrbach’s objections, repeatedly required and pressured her to take and complete “Breaking the Code: The Mysteries of Modern Management Unlocked”, a course adapted from the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.
  • Denied Ms. Rohrbacher a pay raise until she completed the Code Course.
  • Directed Ms. Rohrbacher to participate in two communication training exercises.
  • Required Ms. Rohrbacher, in one exercise, to sit a few feet apart from her manager, and stare into her manager’s face without looking away.
  • In the second exercise, required Ms. Rohrbacher to participate in “bull-baiting,” which required the participants to yell derogatory remarks at each other.
  • Offered Ms. Rohrbacher a promotion to a management position and then denied her the promotion after she objected to Teton Therapy’s directive to attend a week-long training course in Clearwater, Florida, which she reasonably believed was Scientology based training.
  • Terminated her employment.

On December 5-6, 2019, the court denied Teton Therapy’s motion for summary judgment on Ms. Rohrbacher’s claim for religious discrimination and granted the motion on the hostile work environment claim. The amount of any settlement payment is confidential under the settlement agreement. On January 2, 2020, the lawsuit was dismissed by the court, pursuant to the parties’ joint motion.

Related Scientology in Employment Lawsuit Information

The employer in EEOC v. Dynamic Medical Services, Inc. [7] a federal enforcement action,  is similar in type and conduct to the employer in Rohrbacher. Dynamic provided medical and chiropractic services.

The EEOC’s allegations included the employer requiring one or more employees to  attend courses that involved Scientology religious practices and participate in Scientology practices, such as screaming at  ashtrays or staring at someone for eight hours without moving.

The EEOC alleged Dynamic discharged from employment after they refused to participate in Scientology religious practices and/or did not conform to Scientology religious beliefs.

The Dynamic Medical case was settled for $170,000.00.[8]

Moreover, the issue of employer directives to employees, concerning Scientology practices, is addressed in the federal lawsuit, Grecia Echevarria-Hernandez, v. Affinitylifestyles.com, Inc., et. seq.[9]

Furthermore, in 2012, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries ordered a dentist in to pay nearly $348,000 to settle allegations that he threatened to fire a dental assistant unless she attended a Scientology-related training session.[10]

Discussion  

Further discussion of the Rohrbacher v, Teton Therapy case is set forth in https://tonyortega.org/2020/01/08/wyoming-employer-settles-to-prevent-trial-on-forcing-worker-into-scientology/.

[1] 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–2(a)(1).

[2] Mandell v. Cty. of Suffolk, 316 F.3d 368, 378 (2d Cir. 2003).

[3] Shapolia v. Los Alamos Nat. Lab., 992 F.2d 1033, 1036 (10th Cir. 1993).

[4] EEOC v. United Health Programs of Am., 213 F. Supp. 3d 377, 392 (E.D.N.Y. 2016).

[5] Shapolia, supra, 992 F.2d 1033, 1038.

[6] U.S. District Court – District of Wyoming [Case No. 1:18-cv-00214-SWS]

[7] U.S. District Court – Southern District of Florida [Case No. 1:13-cv-21666)].

[8]  https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/12-23-13a.cfm

[9]  U.S. District Court – District of Nevada [Case No. 2:16-cv-00943]

[10] https://www.oregonlive.com/money/2012/10/bend_dentist_fined_nearly_3480.html

Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steven Murray has practiced employment law for over 30 years. He holds a Master of Laws degree in Labor and Employment Law from Georgetown University Law School He is admitted to practice law in the District of Columbia and Colorado. He previously served as a Senior Trial Attorney for the EEOC in the Birmingham District and Denver Field offices.

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