ALBANY — Can an employer lawfully require his workers to attend a weekly Bible study?
Not according to a former employee of a Christian-owned construction company here, who has filed an $800,000 lawsuit against the firm, claiming he was fired for refusing to attend the study. But the company’s owner claims he didn’t fire the worker and that he left voluntarily.
As reported by The Oregonian and by Eugene’s KEZI-TV, Ryan Coleman, 34, recently filed the lawsuit in Linn County Circuit Court. He claims that it wasn’t until after he was hired last October as a painter for Dahled Up Construction that owner Joel Dahl required all employees to take part in regular Bible studies led by a Christian pastor during the work day, while on the clock.
Coleman said he told Dahl that the requirement was illegal, but Dahl wouldn’t back down. Not wanting to lose his job, Coleman attended the studies for six months but eventually told Dahl he would not go, and was fired last April, according to the lawsuit.
Dahl, however, claims that it was Coleman’s decision to leave, that he was on call and got employment with another company at the time he left.
Albany attorney Ken Hickham, representing Dahl, doesn’t dispute that employees were required to attend the study, but said it’s legal because Dahl pays them to be there.
Hickham said Dahl feels now that Coleman is trying to exploit Dahl’s honorable actions for “unjustified financial gain.”
But Portland attorney Corinne Schram, representing Coleman, said the requirement is clearly illegal. She said a company cannot force its employees to participate in religious activities, unlike a religious organization such as a church.
Both Dahl and Coleman have criminal convictions in their past but have worked hard to overcome their past problems.
On his two-year-old company”s Facebook site, Dahl has expressed deep faith in God, giving praise to Jesus for what he and his crew have been able to accomplish in various home construction projects.
Dahl said he had himself struggled with drugs and alcohol in the past and served time in prison for attempted second-degree assault, but that he has been clean and sober for seven years.
Dahl describes himself as a “second-chance em-ployer” who seeks to help other convicted felons or people who have battled addictions rebuild their lives.
Coleman said he will always appreciate that Dahl gave him work, but that he could not disregard what he felt was the illegality of Dahl’s Bible study requirement.
Coleman is not a practicing Christian and said his religious beliefs reflect his part-Native American heritage. He served prison time for delivery of methamphetamine and child neglect but has now been clean and sober for nearly four years. In August he won back full custody of his two children. In the lawsuit, Coleman asks for $50,00 in lost wages; $750,000 for mental stress, humiliation, inconvenience and loss of enjoyment of life; and recovery of his legal fees.