Atheist and Agnostic Fired for not Attending Company Prayers Win $50K in Suit
The two workers declined to participate in a daily prayer circle as the company owner read from Scripture.
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News Story by Yonat Shimron | Religion News Service
A North Carolina home repair company that advertises as “Grandmother Approved” has agreed to pay $50,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by two employees who were fired for refusing to participate in daily Christian prayers.
The lawsuit, brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Aurora Pro Services of Greensboro, alleges the company created a religiously-hostile work environment that constituted harassment on the basis of religion.
The two former employees, John McGaha and Mackenzie Saunders, who identify as atheist and agnostic, respectively, were let go after they declined to participate in a daily prayer circle, during which the company’s owner read Bible verses.
Oscar D. Lopez, the company’s owner, declined to comment. His LinkedIn page describes him as “Servant. Husband. Father. Devout Catholic.” The “About” section of the website says the company is named for Lopez’s grandmother, Aurora: “From her, I learned what family means. I learned honesty is the only option. I learned that no matter what troubles I have, the solution can always be found in the Lord.”
Aurora Pro Services, which provides residential contract services such as roofing, plumbing and heating, at first retaliated against McGaha, a construction manager, by slashing his wages in half. In 2020, it then fired him. McGaha said he had noticed that the length of the prayer meetings increased from about 20 minutes to 45 minutes or more as time passed.
Saunders, who worked as a customer service representative in 2020 and 2021, was likewise fired after she stopped attending the mandated prayer meetings, saying they conflicted with her beliefs.
According to the EEOC complaint, Aurora’s owner took attendance before some of the prayer meetings and reprimanded employees who did not attend. Prayers were sometimes requested and offered for poor performing employees, who were identified by name.
The EEOC tried to mediate with the company but was unsuccessful. It claimed in the suit that Aurora Pro’s conduct consisted of malice with reckless indifference to the employees’ federally protected religious rights.
Specifically, the company was found to violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits religious discrimination, harassment and retaliation in the workplace.
The $50,000 settlement was announced by the EEOC on Aug. 2. It consists of backpay to cover lost wages and commissions for both the fired employees. McGaha was to receive $37,500 and Saunders $12,500.
“Federal law protects employees from having to choose between their sincerely held religious beliefs and their jobs,” Melinda C. Dugas, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Charlotte District, said in a statement. “Employers who sponsor prayer meetings in the workplace have a legal obligation to accommodate employees whose personal religious beliefs conflict with the company’s practice.”
As part of the three-year agreement worked out in court, Aurora Pro cannot discriminate or retaliate against any employees going forward and must establish “a new anti-discrimination, non-retaliation, and religious accommodation policy and provide training to all managers and employees, including the owner.”