Religious organizations are legally allowed to reject job applicants because of their religious beliefs. But even if Voss Lighting believes, as its website states, that its "biblical mission" is to sell lighting products, that doesn't make it a religious institution under U.S. law.
So when Voss allegedly refused to hire someone for not being a born-again Christian, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission entered the scene, and handed the company a lawsuit.
In early 2011, reports the Tulsa World, Edward Wolfe applied for an operations supervisor position at a Tulsa outlet of the Nebraska-based company, according to the EEOC.
During interviews for the job that Wolfe failed to get, two managers allegedly asked questions "both subtle and overt" about Wolfe's religious inclinations -- like the name of every church he'd attended over the past several years, when and where he was "saved," and whether he "would have a problem" arriving early to attend Bible study before the paid workday began.
One of the managers was clearly agitated by Wolfe's replies, reports the EEOC. A manager also allegedly said that most of Voss' employees were Southern Baptist, but it didn't matter what church you attended as long as you were "born-again."
On its website, Voss Lighting says its mission is to sell lighting products "so that we may 'tell' everyone we can about God's soul-saving, life-transforming gospel message as Jesus instructed believers to do." It then goes on to list various Biblical quotes, ending with Colossians 3:23: "Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men..."
The EEOC claims that Wolfe was denied the job because he wasn't Christian enough, which violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It filed its lawsuit in Oklahoma federal court. Voss Lighting denies the charge, saying in a written statement to the Tulsa World that the person who was given the job simply had more lighting experience, and that the company "looks forward to a judicial determination of the rights of the parties."
Although Voss Lighting apparently isn't claiming the right to discriminate on religious grounds, the issue of religious organizations' freedom to hire on that basis was raised recently at a Senate hearing on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The measure would make it illegal to refuse to hire someone for being gay, bisexual or transgender.
"ENDA is just one more example of a growing trend where 'discrimination' laws collide head-on with fundamental rights of religious organizations," Craig Parshall, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Religious Broadcasters Association, testified before the Senate committee.
ENDA, like all anti-discrimination laws, has a religious exemption built in, so that religious institutions are allowed to hire only individuals who share the faith of the organization. A lighting company isn't a religious institution, though, no matter how spiritually motivated it claims to be.
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