Ryan Coleman, an Oregon construction worker, is suing his former employer, Dahled Up Construction, for firing him because he stopped attending the employer's Bible study class. He is seeking $800,000 in damages. John Dahl, the company's owner and founder, claims that he paid the employee for the hour of Bible study every week, and the employee was an at-will worker, so he doesn't see the problem. At issue here is at-will employment vs. religious discrimination.
Coleman and His Religious Freedom
Coleman, who is half Native America, was hired by Dahl for at-will on-call construction jobs. Coleman worked on-call jobs for other companies while working for Dahl. After Coleman had been working for Dahl a few weeks, Dahl decided to create a mandatory Bible study class for his workers.
At first Coleman complied with the order, since he is a convicted felon and feared it might be hard to find another job. But after a while, he felt he was compromising his values too much and told Dahl he would no longer attend. He was fired soon after, even though Dahl had just given him a raise two weeks prior. Coleman claims he was wrongfully terminated for failing to attend Bible study, which was at odds with his Native American spirituality, in violation of his civil rights.
Dahl and His At-Will Employees
Dahl, on the other hand, claims that Coleman was an at-will employee, and could be let go at any time. Generally, that's true. However, the law is clear that even with at-will employment, an employer cannot fire someone for reasons that are illegal under federal and state law. Religious freedom is one of those protected reasons, and an employer that is not running a religious business cannot fire an at-will employee based on religious discrimination, which mandatory Bible study seems to be.
Dahl may also claim that Coleman was an on-call employee, and that Coleman even had other on-call jobs for other employers while he was employed by Dahl. However, federal law prohibits religious discrimination regarding any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, wages, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, and any other term or condition of employment. At the very least, this seems to be job assignment related, and at the most, firing.
Dahl has yet to file any legal response to Coleman's lawsuit. It will be interesting to see his defense, and as we all know, there are two sides to every story.
If you are interested in implementing a mandatory class for your employees, even if you are doing it out of the goodness of your heart, check with a local employment lawyer to make sure it doesn't violate any state or local laws. It might just save you $800,000.