Is Forced Worship Legal?

Forced worship: these are two words that, in my mind, should be an oxymoron. Of all the forms of discrimination that exist in the workplace this one seems the most “out there.” Now, however, a woman is claiming that she was fired from her job for “declining to pray at work.”

Freedom of Worship by Norman Rockwell, the Four Freedoms

Freedom of Worship by Norman Rockwell

According to yesterday’s Boston Globe, Jing Zhang, a former employee of a nonprofit program created by Jenzabar Inc., has sued the company, its founder, Ling Chai, and two charitable organizations that Jenzabar formed and funded. Stephanie Ebbert’s article in the Globe states, “The defendants do not dispute firing her on religious grounds, but claim a religious exemption from antidiscrimination law.” In addition, they accuse Ms Zhang of deception because they believe she “misled the organizations about her faith.”

Jenzabar is not itself a religious organization, hospital, charity, missionary outreach or evangelical operation. It is a software management company that produces a commercial product. Its website’s mission statement says, “We’re a leading provider of the software, strategies, and services that are vital to the efficient administration of higher education institutions such as yours.”

All Girls Allowed Except One

The charitable operation that Ms. Zhang worked for—and co-founded—is called All Girls Allowed. Established in Flushing, NY, it promotes the rights of women and children in China.

The All Girls Allowed web site frames its mission statement in overtly religious terms and its tag line is, “In Jesus’ Name, Simply Love Her.” The organization’s three goals are to:

1. Expose the injustice of China’s one-child policy
2. Rescue girls and mothers from gendercide in society
3. Celebrate women by embracing them as equal image-bearers of God

end China's one-child policyAre these three goals religious in nature? It is possible to expose injustice, rescue girls and celebrate women without belief, dogma, scripture, or ritual. All Girls Allowed is not seeking to convert female Chinese to any particular faith or to proselytize in China.

They may want to help Chinese women because they believe that it’s their Christian mission to do so but that doesn’t make the organization a religious one. Certainly the girls and women they seek to help in China are not going to be religious, much less Christian.

The Human Rights Law in New York City makes it illegal to fire anyone because of their religious beliefs or to discriminate against an employee on religious grounds. It does, however, give an exemption for religious organizations. This exemption is the basis for Jenzabar’s defense.

The defendants concede that they did not organize All Girls Allowed as a religious organization in its bylaws or articles of incorporation. They are claiming the religious exemption because their work is “motivated and guided by the teachings of Jesus Christ.” Jenzabar the corporation, however, paid Ms. Zhang’s salary and benefits along with employment agreements and a company handbook that included policies that prohibit workplace discrimination.

Belief is Not Fact

Ms. Chai, claims that All Girls Allowed “could not achieve its objective of putting an end to these evils without God’s help.” Fair enough. Believe whatever you like. Take inspiration from wherever you like. But believing in something does not make it fact—especially in legal terms. Wars have been fought on the premise that “God is on our side” but that did not make it so. Nor did it determine the winner.

Ms Zhang, who is Catholic, was given an ultimatum to either stay with All Girls Allowed and “seek the will of God in her life on a daily basis or through study of God’s Word and through prayer, alone or with regular weekly corporate worship,” or find another job. To me, this is corporate version of “convert or die.”

Employees should be hired, evaluated, promoted or dismissed based on qualifications and performance alone. Discrimination based on age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or religion has no role in the business world. Unfortunately, this ideal works better in theory than in practice.  I was once contacted by a recruiter about a job in Mississippi where a stated requirement was participating in a daily worship service—a truly corporate form of corporate worship. I declined to pursue any job that intruded that much on my personal thoughts and beliefs. After all, if one’s health care records are confidential, how much more private is one’s relationship with God?

Is It Thought Control?

Discrimination of all kinds exists in the business world either overtly, carefully hidden from public view, or disguised by blaming the victim. So why does this instance of workplace discrimination seem so outrageous? Is it because it’s relatively rare or because it seems to violate American business culture? The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, bad as it was, affected only benefits and not the ability of the company’s employees to remain employed.

thought controlIs it because it mixes politics with business? No, that combination is old hat even though Jenzabar hosted a fund raiser for Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio.

Or does it seem so offensive because it smacks of thought control?

Both Ms. Zhang and Ms. Chai were born in China and Ms. Zhang was imprisoned there for five years. Ms. Chai was a Tiananmen Square activist. They came together out of their shared desire to fight the kind of government control of private lives that limits family size by law and imprisons people for protesting it. The huge irony here is that Jenzabar is seeking to impose exactly that kind of thought control on Ms. Zhang and, by extension, other Jenzabar employees, in Jesus’s name.

Somehow, I think that’s the last thing Jesus would have wanted.

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