Two employees with a North Carolina company say they were fired after refusing to participate in the firm’s daily Christian prayer meetings, which they said went against their respective religious beliefs, according to a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The lawsuit, which seeks a jury trial, was filed in U.S. District Court in Greensboro on Monday on behalf of John McGaha, a construction manager at Aurora Pro Services, and Mackenzie Saunders, a customer service representatives at the Greensboro residential services company. The EEOC announced the lawsuit Tuesday in a news release.
It comes on the heels of a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court which said a high school football coach in Washington state who knelt and prayed on the field after games was protected by the Constitution.
Mary Kate Littlejohn, a Greenville, South Carolina, attorney representing McGaha and Saunders, declined comment Tuesday. No one from Aurora Pro Services was immediately available for comment Tuesday and questions on the lawsuit were referred to an email address from which there was no immediate answer.
In the complaint, the EEOC says daily prayer meetings are part of Aurora's business model, though there is no reference to it on its web page. Attendance at the prayer meetings was mandatory for employees and was a condition of employment regardless of a worker's religious beliefs or affiliation, the complaint said.
On occasion, prayers were requested and offered “for poor performing employees who were identified by name,” according to the complaint. Also, the complaint noted, the company owner took attendance and would reprimand employees who did not attend.
McGaha, who identifies himself as an atheist, was hired by the company on June 8, 2020. He said the prayer meetings, which initially lasted around 15 minutes, stretched in length to around 45 minutes and even longer. Saunders, who worked at Aurora from November 2020 until Jan. 21, 2021, describes herself as an agnostic. She also acknowledged that the prayer meetings became longer over time.
According to the complaint, McGaha said the longer the prayer meetings went, the less tolerable they became. He said he was asked on one occasion to lead the Christian prayer, which he refused. In late August 2020, he asked the owner of the company to be excused from those parts of the meeting that pertained to religion because of his conflict with it, but the owner refused and told him “it would be in his best interest to do so.”
McGaha asked again in September to be excused. The complaint said the owner told him that he did not have to believe in God nor did he have to like the meetings but he had to participate. McGaha refused and he was fired, the complaint said. Before he was fired, the owner reduced his base pay from $800 to $400 and his commissions were withheld after his dismissal, the EEOC said.
In January 2021, Saunders stopped going to the prayer meetings because they conflicted with her religion. She was fired, the complaint said, adding that the owner told her she “was not a good fit” for the company.
The complaint also seeks a permanent injunction to prevent the company from engaging in employment practices that discriminate on the basis of religion and subject workers to a hostile work environment “by coercing participating in daily prayer.”