Two former employees of a North Carolina contracting company who say there were fired for refusing to take part in the firm’s daily “cult-like” Christian prayer meetings have filed a federal discrimination lawsuit.
John McGaha and Mackenzie Saunders said in a lawsuit filed Monday that the owner of Aurora Pro Services “created a hostile work environment, based on religion,” and openly threatened to fire workers who didn't attend the sessions.
“You have to participate,” the owner said, according to McGaha in the lawsuit. “If you do not participate, that is okay, you don’t have to work here. You are getting paid to be here.”
Saunders said in the lawsuit that the prayer meetings “lasted nearly an hour during which, Defendant’s owner, would pray and recite scripture from the Bible.”
“Ms. Saunders describes the behavior as ‘ranting,’” the lawsuit states. “Ms. Saunders began to feel as though the meetings became 'cult-like' after the owner required everyone to recite the Catholic version of the Lord’s Prayer in unison.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Greensboro, North Carolina, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a high school football coach in Washington state who knelt and prayed on the field after games was protected by the Constitution.
The complaint, which identifies the company as the defendant, does not name the owner. Public records, LinkedIn and an operator at Aurora Pro Service identified the owner as Oscar D. Lopez, 40.
Lopez did not respond to an email for comment. And an Aurora Pro Service employee hung up on a reporter who asked to leave a message for him.
The company website does not explicitly say one has to be a Christian to work there, but it does say that "the solution can always be found in the Lord."
“We cannot provide any additional information beyond what is in the complaint,” said Mary Kate Littlejohn, the trial attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, who filed the lawsuit.
The employment commission said in a statement that Aurora Pro Services "violated federal law when it required employees to participate in religious prayer sessions as a condition of employment and retaliated against employees who opposed the unlawful practice."
“Federal law protects employees from having to choose between their sincerely held religious beliefs and their jobs,” said Melinda C. Dugas, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Charlotte District. “Employers who sponsor prayer meetings in the workplace have a legal obligation to accommodate employees whose personal religious or spiritual views conflict with the company’s practice.”
McGaha worked as a construction manager at Aurora Pro Services from June 8, 2020, until he was dismissed on Sept. 4, 2020, according to the lawsuit. Saunders worked for the company as a customer service representative from November 2020 until Jan. 21, 2021.
They are seeking a jury trial, damages and “appropriate backpay to cover lost wages and commissions.” They could not be reached for comment Thursday.
In the complaint, McGaha identified himself as atheist and Saunders said she was agnostic. They said they were required to take part in "mandatory" prayer meetings where "employees stood in a circle, while the owner and others read Bible scripture and Christian devotionals."
"Prayers were sometimes requested and offered for poor performing employees, who were identified by name," the complaint states.
McGaha said in the complaint that he "initially attended the prayer meetings, but as the meetings grew more religious in nature and longer in duration, they became less tolerable."
"On one occasion, the owner asked Mr. McGaha to lead the Christian prayer," the complaint states.
McGaha said he declined and later, privately, asked the owner to be excused "from attending portions of the daily prayer meetings that pertained to religion because it conflicted with his personal religious beliefs."
The request, the complaint states, was denied, and McGaha said the owner told him it would be in his "best interest" to attend the prayer meetings.
McGaha said in the complaint that the owner later cut his pay by half when he continued objecting.
Saunders said in the complaint that she was fired after she refused to attend the prayer meetings.
"The owner told Ms. Saunders she was being discharged because she was 'not a good fit' for the company," the complaint states.