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Encountering Religion in the WorkplaceThe Legal Rights and Responsibilities of Workers and Employers$

Raymond F. Gregory

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780801449543

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801449543.001.0001

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Employer Proselytization

Employer Proselytization

(p.81) 7 Employer Proselytization
Encountering Religion in the Workplace

Raymond F. Gregory

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the legal issues surrounding an employer's proselytization of its employees. When an employer engages in proselytizing of its employees, it may be violating Title VII because workers who find themselves in those circumstances are more likely to endure repeated violations of their rights rather than risk losing their jobs by reacting negatively to efforts to convert them. Similarly, a job applicant made aware of the religious beliefs and practices of an employer may decide to ignore its proselytization endeavors in hopes of gaining employment. This chapter considers a number of court cases to show that an employer is always skating on thin ice when it proselytizes in the workplace, including those involving the Sports and Health Club, the Townley Manufacturing Company, and Preferred Home Health Care.

Keywords:   employers, proselytizing, employees, Title VII, religious beliefs, court cases, Sports and Health Club, Townley Manufacturing Company, Preferred Home Health Care

An employer’s proselytization of its employees may constitute a particularly egregious violation of Title VII because workers who find themselves in those circumstances are more likely to endure repeated violations of their rights rather than risk losing their jobs by reacting negatively to efforts to convert them. Similarly, a job applicant made aware of the religious beliefs and practices of an employer may decide to ignore its proselytization endeavors, hoping thereby to gain employment.

An employer’s proselytization efforts may be directed at a single employee, a small group of employees, or its entire staff. The larger the group, the greater the likelihood the employer will be taken to task for its efforts.

Arthur Owens, Marc Crevier, and Forest Larson owned and operated seven sports and health clubs, located in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, providing recreational and exercise facilities for eighteen thousand members. All three of the owners were born-again Christians, publicly expressing deeply held fundamentalist religious convictions while proclaiming (p.82) they were required to act in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ in their business relationships as in their personal lives.

The owners’ religious convictions led them to initiate certain employment practices seldom found elsewhere. They questioned prospective employees about their religious practices and beliefs, whether they believed in God, attended church, or read the Bible. Job applicants were also questioned about their marital status and whether they had engaged in premarital or extramarital sexual relations. They justified interviews of this nature as a method of informing prospective employees of their fervent religious beliefs and as a means of determining whether an applicant possessed a “teachable spirit” and pursued a disciplined lifestyle. They refused to hire an applicant living with a person of the opposite sex unless the two were duly married, and they denied employment to a single woman without her father’s consent and to a married woman without her husband’s consent. They also refused to consider for employment anyone antagonistic to the teachings of the Bible, which in their view included homosexuals. They agreed to hire Jews and Catholics “so long as [they] are not offended by the owners’ faith, are not antagonistic toward the Christian gospel and [promise] to comply with management’s work rules in a cheerful and obedient spirit.”

After employees were hired, the owners promoted them primarily on the basis of their religious beliefs, elevating only born-again Christians to manager and assistant manager positions because, as they argued, they were forbidden by God to work with “unbelievers.” Bible studies comprised a substantial portion of weekly business meetings held for managerial personnel, while voluntary Bible studies were conducted for all sales personnel. At the entrances of each club were copies of religious screeds and texts unquestionably designed to persuade their employees to accept the owners’ fundamentalist religious beliefs.

Eventually some of the employees objected to these practices and complained to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. In the litigation that ensued, it was established that Owens, Crevier, and Larson had inaugurated a number of practices that were clearly discriminatory, including questioning job applicants about their religious beliefs and marital status, promoting employees on the basis of their religious affiliation, and terminating workers because of changes in marital status. They were also found guilty of using their positions as owners of the company to force their (p.83) religious beliefs and practices upon their employees. As born-again Christians, they favored those employees who joined the born-again ranks, and during the hiring process they searched out applicants who they believed would be amenable to conversion to fundamentalist religious beliefs. Once hired, a worker had to agree to become a born-again Christian in order to be eligible for promotion to manager or assistant manager, and after elevation to one of those positions, he or she was compelled to attend weekly Bible study meetings. Owens, Crevier, and Larson had designed a work environment dedicated to the conversion of their employees to Christian, fundamentalist beliefs and practices. Nearly every aspect of that environment violated applicable antidiscrimination laws. The owners possessed the right to practice their religious faith in the place and manner they wished, but that right did not extend to the workplace. The workplace they created was dominated by religious bias and unquestionably had to be dismantled.1

Fundamentalist Christians and others who openly center their daily lives on their religious beliefs, firmly believing that all persons should similarly direct their lives, not infrequently find themselves in violation of antidiscrimination laws. Although they honor and respect what they perceive to be God’s law, they often demonstrate a lack of respect for human law, always granting greater priority to the former while rejecting the latter whenever they view it as conflicting with or standing in opposition to their religious beliefs. Those charged with the responsibility of enforcing the antidiscrimination laws must then act to make certain that those who purport to follow God’s law also fulfill their responsibilities to the laws designed by human beings to govern the workplace. Those purporting to act on God’s law, however, at times strongly resist efforts to bring them within the confines of those workplace laws.

The founders of the Townley Manufacturing Company ran their company in accordance with what they perceived to be God’s law while ignoring the proscriptions of Title VII. When Jake and Helen Townley first organized their company to manufacture mining equipment in Florida, they covenanted with God that the company would always stand as a “Christian faith-operated business.” The Townleys were “born again believers in the Lord Jesus Christ,” convinced that they were wholly unable to separate God from any portion of their daily lives, including the activities of their manufacturing company. As the company flourished, it expanded (p.84) its activities to other states, including Arizona, where a plant was established in the town of Eloy.

In keeping with its covenant with God, the company enclosed a Gospel tract in every piece of its outgoing mail and printed biblical verses on all company invoices, purchase orders, and other commercial documents. It gave financial support to various churches and missionaries and initiated a weekly devotional service for its employees, a move that became particularly significant in later years.

From its inception, the company’s Florida plant conducted these weekly services. Typically lasting from thirty to forty-five minutes, the services included prayer, singing, giving testimony, and scripture readings, as well as discussion of business matters. Failure to attend a weekly service was regarded as equivalent to missing work.

These devotional services had not yet been inaugurated at the Arizona plant at the time that Louis Pelvas was hired, but subsequently the company distributed to its workers at that plant a handbook stating that all employees were required to attend weekly nondenominational devotional services. At first Pelvas attended those services without complaint, but later he asked to be excused from attendance because he was an atheist. His supervisor advised him that attendance was mandatory, regardless of his religious beliefs or lack of such beliefs, but if he wished, he could read his newspaper or sleep through the service. This was not good enough for Pelvas. He filed a religious discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and resigned his position with the company.

In the litigation that followed, Pelvas argued that the Townleys should have accommodated his atheist beliefs by relieving him of the obligation to attend the devotional meetings. The Townleys responded that their covenant with God required them to share the Gospel with all their employees, and the accommodation sought by Pelvas would have caused them “spiritual hardship.” The court rejected this argument, noting that Title VII states that the employer must show undue hardship in “the conduct of [its] business.” The mere assertion that excusing Pelvas from the services would have inflicted spiritual costs on the company or on the Townleys was not enough:

It follows that Townley’s attempts to link the alleged spiritual hardship to the conduct of the business must fail. It is not enough to argue that Townley was founded to “share with all of its employees the spiritual aspects of the (p.85) company,” … and that the proposed accommodation would have a “chilling effect” on that purpose. To “chill” its purpose has no effect on its economic well-being.

While the court did not question the Townleys’ assertion that their covenant with God compelled them to share the teachings of the Bible with all their employees, it observed that the strength of the government’s interest in eradicating discrimination through the application of the principles of Title VII was clear:

Congress’ purpose to end discrimination is equally if not more compelling than other interests that have been held to justify legislation that burdened the exercise of religious convictions.… Protecting an employee’s right to be free from forced observance of the religion of his employer is at the heart of Title VII’s prohibition against religious discrimination.

The court refused to allow the Townleys to override a worker’s objections to forced attendance at devotional services solely on the basis of their assertion that their covenant with God obligated them to share their faith with all their employees. The Townleys had to accept Title VII‘s proscriptions over their covenant with God.2

Title VII did not require the Townleys to suspend their religious beliefs when they opened their Arizona plant, but it prohibited them from forcing those religious beliefs upon their workers. They were free to operate their company in accordance with their covenant with God, but they were not free to compel unwilling employees to accede to the terms of the covenant. Attendance at the devotional services should have been made optional, and adverse consequences should not have been levied against workers who opted not to participate in them.

God’s law, as the Townleys perceived it, was wrongly preempted by human law—Title VII—and this concept led them to commit violations of that law. The Townleys, however, were not unique in their concerted efforts to bring religion into the workplace. Other employers have engaged in even more pervasive invasions of the private lives of their employees. A prime example involved Jackie Steuerwald and her company, Preferred Home Health Care.

Steuerwald and her husband owned Preferred and several related companies that provided home health care services. Steuerwald identified (p.86) herself as a practicing Christian who adhered to a literal interpretation of the Bible while professing a concept of salvation that called her to be born again. She also believed that God had directed her to establish the Preferred companies and that Preferred was God’s home health care agency. She openly shared those beliefs with her employees by distributing to them a narrative entitled “The Transfiguration of Preferred,” a brief history of God’s involvement in the company’s formation and his continued participation in its direction.

Steuerwald firmly believed in the precepts of the “The Great Commission,” a religious directive requiring a believer to go into the world and share the faith. Believing without doubt or reservation that this directive required her to share her faith in the workplace, she proclaimed that “in Him I live and breathe and have my being, and I don’t leave my faith at the door when I go to work. It’s who I am. It permeates my thinking, my decisions.”

When the company expanded its operations, she anointed new branch offices with olive oil, asking for God’s blessing. When she purported to have discovered that demons were causing strife and discord in two of the company’s offices, she rid them of their presence by anointing the offices. On occasion she also anointed individual employees.

Steuerwald defined Preferred’s mission as “presenting God and Son, Jesus Christ, to all of Preferred’s employees,” and its mission statement announced that the company’s primary role was “to be a Christian, dedicated provider of quality health care.” Preferred’s employees were required, as a condition of continued employment, to sign each year a statement that included the commitment that “I have examined myself and I agree that I have respected and actively supported Preferred’s Mission and Values during this past year of employment and I agree to respect and actively support Preferred’s Mission and Values in the coming year.” Employees were evaluated and disciplined in accordance with this statement, and those who violated its precepts were terminated.

Preferred’s corporate organizational chart, known as “the wheel,” located Jesus at its center, representing the rock upon which Preferred was built, and from this center all company departments radiated as spokes. Steuerwald exhibited the wheel at management meetings, explaining that with Jesus as its foundation, the company would grow and benefit. Preferred customarily gave copies of its mission statement and of the wheel (p.87) to all job applicants, who were asked how they felt about working for a Christian organization. Those who felt there was little or no room for religion in the workplace were denied employment. The newly employed were fully versed in the basic religious concepts adopted by Steuerwald to guide Preferred in the business world, and they understood the religious roles they were expected to assume as employees of the company.

Preferred offered its employees the opportunity to attend prayer and religious gatherings, referred to as “devotions.” Although company officials claimed that attendance was not mandatory, managerial employees generally felt that as role models they were required to attend, and thus they perceived their presence as mandatory. Prayer was also encouraged outside devotions, and prayers were recited before all business meetings.

For many years these circumstances rarely varied, and nearly ten years elapsed before an employee filed a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Subsequently, the EEOC filed legal charges against Preferred on behalf of all its employees.

During the course of the EEOC investigation and subsequent litigation, several employees testified to the details of Preferred’s religiously dominated work environment. One of those was Mary Mulder, a staffing coordinator whose job was to prepare schedules for all the home health aides in the company’s Indianapolis branch.

Mulder attended Catholic church services with her husband and children but was not herself a Catholic. In fact, her religious convictions were rather vague—she understood a Christian to be one who was kind and honest, and a person was “saved” by believing in God, by being kind to other people, and by taking care of family. She recognized that Steuerwald accepted different religious concepts, believing that to be saved one had to preach the Gospel to others and verbally express one’s feeling about religion. On one occasion Steuerwald announced to Mulder that if she wished to be saved, she needed to learn how to preach the word of God to other people, to openly talk about God, and to abandon her sinful way of life.

On another occasion Steuerwald commented to Mulder that she was very open with others about religious matters because she wanted others to have the glory of God in their lives as she did. Mulder rejected Steuerwald’s religious views and informed her that she was a very private person, that she kept her religious beliefs to herself, that she was accustomed to praying in private, and that she disliked preaching to others. Steuerwald (p.88) said that with that kind of attitude, Mulder could not be saved, and since she was not “charismatic” about religion, she could not possibly be walking in the path of God.

When Mulder experienced problems with her work schedules, her supervisor insisted upon praying over Mulder’s paperwork. When Mulder asked her to desist from interfering in this manner, her supervisor refused, announcing that this was a common practice at Preferred. In fact, whenever a worker left the employ of the company, Steuerwald or a member of the supervisory staff prayed over the ex-employee’s office so as to rid it of the demons left behind by the departing employee.

During the course of an extended meeting that Mulder attended with other employees, each employee shared with the group some personal information concerning his or her spiritual journey. At the end of the day Mulder left the meeting mulling over the fact that all the people who spoke had revealed that they had had at least one religious experience. She had always believed that religious experiences were rare, usually occurring once in a lifetime, and for many persons not at all. Mulder considered it strange that all the speakers had had one or more such experiences, but she nevertheless felt excluded. She began to think of herself as an outcast. Not long after, she grew increasingly more uncomfortable—and sometimes nauseated—whenever a religious matter was discussed in the office.

Mulder grew frustrated with office inefficiencies and disciplinary problems that affected her ability to perform her job tasks. Whenever she raised these concerns with her supervisors, the response focused on religion rather than on a solution to the problem, and thus Mulder grew even more frustrated. Morale in the Indianapolis office was low, and Mulder perceived that many employees were upset and afraid they would lose their jobs if they openly opposed the religious content of their work environment. Matters did not improve when Steuerwald held a meeting with several employees, including Mulder, and told them that several departments were not operating smoothly because their employees were not on the path of God. She advised the group, “You realize that you’re all sinners, that you all play a part in this, of being a sinner.… Until you people release your vanity and quit becoming vain people, you’re always going to come up with these problems.”

Steuerwald left no doubt that she intended to convert Mulder. When she asked Mulder whether she prayed over her work, Mulder responded (p.89) that she was not raised to pray for material gain as she thought it was selfish to do so. Steuerwald replied, “Your kind are the hardest to break.”

The continuous references to religious matters began to undermine Mulder’s work performance. During a staff meeting she started to cry, and when she could not stop, she fled the room. She was depressed, and her depression seemed to grow each day. She found herself going home nearly every night in tears. In the end, she resigned, no longer able to tolerate Steuerwald’s daily expressions of religious conviction and her campaign to persuade Mulder to adopt those convictions for herself.

Mulder testified in detail to all these matters during the course of the EEOC investigation and the litigation that followed. The EEOC argued before the court that Preferred had violated Title VII by making employment decisions on the basis of religious beliefs that were unacceptable to some employees, thus fostering a hostile work environment. It set out to prove that Steuerwald and other management personnel routinely made their own religious values and preferences the guiding principles of daily work life, that they preached a particular brand of religion as workplace orthodoxy, that they conditioned the work environment on their particular religious beliefs, and that they proselytized their employees to join in their religious preferences.

Preferred’s defense to the EEOC charges was centered on its contention that all employees were informed before they joined the company that Preferred was a Christian business enterprise, that attendance at devotions and prayer sessions was not mandatory, and that participation in other religious practices was voluntary. The EEOC countered that while Preferred did not advance a written policy specifically requiring employees to attend devotions and prayer sessions or to commit to the religious beliefs promulgated in its workplace, Steuerwald’s expectation that they attend such devotions and prayer sessions and commit to such religious beliefs amounted to a form of coercion. The jury agreed and awarded the seven complainants punitive damages in varying sums. Mary Mulder’s punitive damages award was $85,000.3

An employer set on proselytizing its employees may succeed in its purposes without adopting the extreme measures utilized by the owners of the Sports and Health Club, by Jake and Helen Townley of the Townley Manufacturing Company, or by Jackie Steuerwald and her company, Preferred Home Health Care. A more reasoned approach, using less intrusive (p.90) methods, may elicit a more positive response from workers than those described in the cases discussed in this chapter. As long as an employee does not object to an employer’s efforts at proselytization, the employer may proceed. Once an objection is asserted, however, the employer must desist. The employer is always skating on thin ice when it engages in workplace religious activities, and therefore its management must remain constantly on guard that it not pass over the line separating activities that are condoned by Title VII from those that are not.


(1.) Minnesota v. Sports & Health Club, Inc., 370 N.W.2d 844, 37 FEP Cases 1463 (Minn. 1985).

(2.) EEOC v. Townley Engineering & Manufacturing Co., 859 F.2d 610 (9th Cir. 1988).

(3.) EEOC v. Preferred Management Corp., 88 FEP Cases 1363 (S.D. Ind. 2002).