The EEOC announced July 26 that a jury awarded seven employees of Preferred Home Health Care of Avon, Indiana, $270,000 in compensatory and punitive damages because the “religious practices of the company were its standard operating procedure and constituted religious harassment to those who did not conform to the company’s prevailing religious beliefs and practices,” according to HR News Online.
The agency sued Preferred in 1998 alleging religious harassment because company management created a hostile work environment for six Catholic employees who did not share or conform to the beliefs of the company’s owner, a born again evangelical Christian. The EEOC also claimed the company refused to hire a woman because, during her interview, she revealed that she was a Unitarian, according to the report.
However, the EEOC did not prevail on its allegations that seven other employees had suffered disparate treatment because their religious beliefs did not conform to those of Preferred’s owner and management.
Officials at Preferred Home Health Care were very open about the religious culture within their company. The owner, Jackie Steuerwald, said that she believes God directed her to start the company, according to HR News Online, and Preferred’s mission statement identifies the company’s primary mission as “to be a Christian dedicated provider of quality health care.”
In fact, Preferred defends its practices as protected under the First Amendment. Furthermore, the firm, which is not by Title VII’s definition a “faith-based” organization, claims its activities were voluntary.
Among other allegations in the EEOC complaint:
- One employee was asked by a manager if she had a bible and was told that she should read the bible because it would help her become a better person.
- Another was given a self-improvement plan that included daily bible readings and daily prayer
- after telling co-workers she had a headache, an employee found herself the recipient of an unwelcome “laying on of hands” – two employees placed their hands on her and prayed for her healing.
- the company has an evangelism and discipleship subcommittee whose members prayed for the salvation of employees.
Attorney Andrew McNeil of Bose, McKenney & Evans, who defended Preferred, noted that while Title VII has an interest in eradicating discrimination, an individual’s rights to freely exercise religion and free speech can represent a conflict. However, in spite of the jury decision, McNeil disputes “any suggestion that any person was expected to conform to the owner or managers’ religious beliefs in order to remain employed.
“Preferred is a Christian company that makes that fact known to applicants,” said McNeil. “The effect of Preferred being a Christian company is that religion is in the air – it is discussed and encouraged.” There are two staff chaplains that conduct weekly devotions; however, attendance was voluntary.
Calling the verdict “important,” Joy Pentz, supervisory investigator for the EEOC, said it “sends a message to employers that they cannot impose their religious beliefs and practices upon their employees,” according to the report.
The EEOC has noted an increase in religious discrimination charge filings nationwide. Religious bias filings with the EEOC rose from 1,546 in 1994 (1.7% of total charge filings for all types of discrimination) to 2,127 in 2001 (2.6% of total charge filings).