Workers Who Called Prayer Meetings 'Cultlike' to Get $50K

2 ex-employees settle in religious discrimination suit against North Carolina home-repair company
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 7, 2023 8:48 AM CDT
They Refused to Pray at Work, Won a $50K Payout
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/PeopleImages)

A North Carolina home-repair business fired two employees after they refused to continue participating in the company's mandatory prayer sessions—and now, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says the firm will pay out $50,000 over the incident. Per a Wednesday EEOC release, the settlement with Aurora Pro Services is in response to a religious harassment, discrimination, and retaliation lawsuit brought in June 2022 by the agency, a complaint spurred by the mandated daily Christian prayer get-togethers that were allegedly led by the company's owner since at least June 2020.

The meetings were said to have included readings from the Bible, as well as recitations of the Lord's Prayer and extra prayers for Aurora workers who weren't performing up to speed, per the Washington Post. The paper identifies one of the two terminated employees as Mackenzie Saunders, an agnostic customer service rep who called the meetings "cultlike" and stopped going in January 2021, just two months after being hired; Saunders was fired that same month. The second employee, atheist construction manager John McGaha, says when he joined the Aurora team in the summer of 2020, he initially took part in the prayer meetings, which at that time were only about 10 minutes long.

In just a few months' time, McGaha says that 10 minutes stretched to 45 minutes, and he finally requested that he be able to opt out of the gatherings. The owner is said to have told McGaha at one point that "he did not have to believe in God, and he did not have to like the prayer meetings, but he had to participate," per McClatchy News. McGaha's pay was allegedly halved, and he was fired in September 2020. The EEOC release notes that the required prayer sessions violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, though in an October court filing, Aurora denied they were mandatory. Now, per the agency, Saunders will receive $12,500 as part of the settlement, while McGaha will get $37,000.

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"Federal law protects employees from having to choose between their sincerely held religious beliefs and their jobs," says Melinda C. Dugas, an EEOC regional attorney. "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." In addition to damages awarded to the complainants, the settlement bars Aurora from discriminating and retaliating against workers in the future for similar reasons, and also mandates training on this topic for all workers and managers, including the owner who reportedly led the prayer sessions. (Read more settlement stories.)

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