Sunday, June 24, 2012

EEOC Takes Aim at Lighting Company’s "Born-Again Christians Only" Rule

Alright, let’s review some basic principles of Hiring 101.  First, entities that qualify as “religious organizations” (i.e., their purpose and character are primarily religious in nature, rather than secular) may lawfully choose to hire applicants of one religion over another.  Second, Title VII has a “ministerial exception” that prohibits discrimination claims by members of the clergy.  Third, and contrary to one employer’s apparent belief, Title VII does not contain a lighting company exception.

These rules – OK, #3 really isn’t a rule, but it’s true – are nothing new; they have been around for decades.  So, it should come as no surprise that an Oklahoma lighting company’s recent effort to hire only born-again Christians is being challenged as unlawful.

In a lawsuit filed earlier this month, the EEOC contends that Voss Lighting refused to hire Edward Wolfe for an operations supervisor position because he wasn’t Christian enough.  During the interview, Wolfe was interrogated about his religious beliefs and practices.  He was asked to identify every church he had attended over the past several years; where and when he was “saved,” and the circumstances that led up to it; and he was asked whether he “would have a problem” coming in early to attend an off-the-clock Bible study before work each day.

One of the managers who conducted the interview was openly agitated by some of Wolfe’s responses and expressed his disapproval.  He told Wolfe that most of the company’s employees were Southern Baptist, although going to a Southern Baptist church was not absolutely mandatory as long as Wolfe was a born-again Christian.  Ultimately, Wolfe’s responses were lacking; he never heard from the company again.

According to Voss Lighting's website, its “mission is to ‘sell’ lighting products so that we may ‘tell’ everyone we can about God’s soul-saving, life-transforming gospel message as Jesus instructed believers to do.”  As worthy and admirable as that may be, the fact remains that the company is not a religious institution within the meaning of the discrimination laws.  At the end of the day, it's still a lighting company.  It can't lawfully make hiring decisions based on applicants' religious beliefs and practices.  (Here's the EEOC's guidance on religious discrimination.)

At least for now, the company insists that it did nothing wrong and that Wolfe didn’t get the job because another applicant had more lighting experience.  It plans to vigorously fight the lawsuit.  Time will tell.


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