Can a Company Fire an Employee for Not Supporting Scientology [e267]

May 9, 2016

The guys kick off the week by discussing a Nevada employee who is claiming she was fired for not supporting the Scientology beliefs of her employer.

Full Podcast Transcript

NASIR: Welcome to our podcast where we cover business in the news and add our legal twist.
My name is Nasir Pasha.

MATT: And I’m Matt Staub.

NASIR: And are you a member of the Scientology Church? I want to preface… I just want to make sure because it might be a sensitive topic otherwise.

MATT: Not that I know of, I’m not.

NASIR: Okay, good. Well, I think you’re required to be one. I think that’s a new requirement for the firm starting now.

MATT: I mean, it’s actually died down a bit. It peaked for a period of time when…

NASIR: The HBO special or documentary?

MATT: Well, I think the Tom Cruise thing is probably when it peaked, maybe.

NASIR: Oh, yeah, that’s true, and when it became more exposed and people started making fun of it a little bit.

MATT: Yeah.

NASIR: But it’s definitely still out there. I don’t want to say “in full force.” You’re right, it’s probably peaked but it’s not that it’s not strong. I think it’s still pretty strong.

MATT: Yeah, you just definitely don’t hear about it as much as you used to.

NASIR: Yeah.

MATT: We have an interesting case and this one’s out of Nevada but, actually, I guess both episodes this week if we’re going to talk about things in different states where we don’t necessarily practice but they’re interesting items nonetheless.
So, there is a woman who is working for this company. I don’t know if it’s called Real Alkalized Water. Is that what it’s called? I saw a different name somewhere else.

NASIR: Real Alkalized Water.

MATT: Okay.

NASIR: I guess their website’s AffinityLifestyle.com but they’re also known as Real Alkalized Water.

MATT: Yeah, that website. The URL didn’t go anywhere so I don’t know.

NASIR: Oh, it didn’t?

MATT: No.

NASIR: Oh.

MATT: DrinkRealWater.com is what they’re…

NASIR: Oh, okay.

MATT: Before I get into this…

NASIR: It’s just so fitting. Yeah, we have to talk about this. Go ahead.

MATT: I think this seems like this is just a scam, right? I mean, water?

NASIR: Yeah.

MATT: Like, real water is just water. It’s tasteless, colorless, odorless. It doesn’t have anything weird. I mean, it’s just water. That’s the whole point of it.
I have a problem with this. I’m sure whatever weird science stuff that they say they’re doing to it – which maybe you know about and I don’t – but there’s no way it’s legit.

NASIR: Well, you have to talk about some of the claims. So, “Real Water is a premium drinking water with alkalized pH of 8.0 that utilizes the proprietary E2 technology—” whatever that is, it’s trademarked though, “—making it the only drinking water on the market that can maintain a stable negative ionization.” This supposedly premium water promises to “unleash the power of negative ions.”
I mean, if you read some of the things that they claim, they talk about infused electrons, they talk about how regular water has all these free radicals, I mean, there’s been a number of people that just basically labelled this as junk science, right?

MATT: Yeah. I mean, that’s what I’m definitely leaning towards. You know, water is what it is. Maybe you can create some sort of side thing that resembles water but this is not real water being that. So, I don’t know. We’ll just leave that at that.
So, this woman worked for this company. She was a brand ambassador, I believe. Yeah, brand ambassador in March of 2015. I guess, you know, right off the bat, they had her start watching these Scientology videos. They described it as a self-betterment course. They also mentioned to her she would receive a raise of 25 cents per hour if she sat through these videos, but I guess she just wasn’t very comfortable watching this or didn’t. I believe she was raised Catholic – not off the alley of Scientology.

NASIR: Her name is Echevarria… Logan told me how to pronounce it. I forgot but anyway…

MATT: I think it’s…

NASIR: Echevarria Hernandez?

MATT: We can do Hernandez. I can get that part. It’s a hard to pronounce name.

NASIR: Yeah, her name, okay.

MATT: Essentially, she was forced to watch – well, not forced – you know, she was told to watch these videos and said she’d get a raise if she watched this and whatever. She just wasn’t comfortable with it. And so, basically, she let her supervisor know she didn’t want to participate in this because of her religious beliefs. At some point, she was terminated as a result, correct?

NASIR: Yeah, about seven months after she was hired.
Okay. Let’s take a step back for a second. You know, we always have to say this because, you know, we’ve been in these kind of circumstances where you hear the first story, the second story is completely opposite and it’s like, “Okay, who do you believe?”

MATT: Yeah.

NASIR: But, as always, the reason we’re covering this is not to determine the truth. I mean, frankly…

MATT: We couldn’t.

NASIR: We wouldn’t be able to but the point is here, okay, she’s alleging certain things. She could have been fired for a number of reasons but let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that what she’s saying is true. Is there really an issue here? I mean, someone’s saying, well, you can talk about religion in the workplace. There’s nothing wrong with that, right?

MATT: Right, exactly. I mean, it’s more so what she discriminated against because of her religion and, you know, not watching these videos, not supporting it. Was there some sort of retaliation by the employer and then, you know, of course, as a result, was she wrongfully terminated based on all of this as well? Like you said, you can talk about religion in the workplace but I guess it crosses the line when it becomes more pushed upon you. I said the word “forced” earlier. I don’t want to go that far. Like, she was locked in a room and had to watch this. But they made it pretty clear that they wanted the people – the employees – to watch this.

NASIR: Yeah, she says that she would receive a pay raise of 25 cents per hour. Of course, when she skipped the videos, I assume she didn’t get the 25 cents per hour and it talks about how her coworkers and superiors turned hostile and so forth.

MATT: Yeah.

NASIR: I mean, here’s the question. Providing the incentive for your employees to go through some kind of training – assuming it’s paid during that time of training and we’ve talked about that before – and, if they go through this training or certification, they get a raise, that in itself is pretty benign. They label this course as a self-betterment course.
Now, the question is, okay, it may be a betterment course but what if it has a religious undertone? Where is the line between that and religion? Of course, it makes me think that, well, if it’s a Scientology sponsored video of some sort, they can’t argue that, even if they’re kind of giving generic messages, that it’s not religious based because, as you know, the Church of Scientology has spent a lot of time and money trying to fight with the IRS and their designation as being as church. And so, I think it’d be hard for them to argue that all of a sudden this is not religious because they may have kind of a defense of this as generic or some kind of generic self-betterment course as they may put it.

MATT: Yeah, and I think one of the big items it’s going to turn on is what exactly were these videos? We haven’t seen the videos. We don’t know what was actually in there, how much it really did push Scientology. Maybe she thought it was one thing and it was actually the other. Like you said before, we don’t know either way, but one thing that’s going to be in her favor perhaps is the fact that the CEO of this company is the Nevada Assembly man who is a big Scientologist. I mean, I don’t know if it was a cause and effect situation or she knew about this.

NASIR: In theory, it could have been something that she’s fabricating. But then, it talks about how that assembly person may not have been involved with the day-to-day operations but his nephew or son may have been involved as vice-president of some sort.

MATT: Yeah.

NASIR: I’m just kind of thinking about this a little bit because we’ve seen it ourselves, actually. You can have certain businesses that the ownership has a certain religious leaning and they create a certain culture and environment that is conducive to that and it can get tricky because, you know, I understand the desire and want to create that environment for your workforce but, you know, it’s very easy to cross the line. I mean, not to pick on any particular religion but let’s say you’re a Christian and you decide to have a company picnic after church, you know, outside at the church parking lot, you know? Little things like that may seem benign but then it may be getting close to that line that you want to stay away from.

MATT: Yeah. You can have something up in your business. I’ve definitely seen that before – restaurants, for example. They might have something up on the wall that has some sort of religious significance but, if you’re making employees say a certain prayer every day before they work, you know, that’s crossing the line. I think you mentioned this before, too, but how much does this create a hostile work environment, if at all? I mean, that’s going to factor into things as well.

NASIR: It’s true and a lot of it, what any of those kind of lawsuits really depend upon what does management know? Either what do they do to create the hostile environment? But, also, what do they do to prevent it and what do they do to mitigate or fix the hostile work environment? For example, employees kind of debating, for example, about religion is one thing. Again, that in itself is not a problem. A supervisor debating with an employee about religion may be an issue – maybe. I’m not saying it’s necessarily but, if it becomes a point where the employee becomes uncomfortable, they feel like they’re treated differently after those discussions and what-have-you, you can call it a problem. Frankly, even if the conversation was light-hearted or so-called benign, just the fact that he had that conversation, unfortunately, in this environment can be used against you. If that employee later becomes dissatisfactory because their performance is low or whatever and you terminate them and they feel like that’s unjustified, it’s going to be one of the things they mentioned in their lawsuit against you – that, yeah, “Once, on April or May 4, 2016, we had a conversation about religion and made me feel uncomfortable.”

MATT: The big thing here too – or one of the big things – is that being told that she could get an hourly raise if she watched these videos.

NASIR: It’s a little weird too, right? I mean, it’s weird to get a raise for watching a video anyway.

MATT: It was a self-betterment course so maybe it was a video and more to it than that but we assume it has this Scientology undertone to it that’s the reason she didn’t end up doing it and that’s the problem.

NASIR: But let’s say it’s just not related to Scientology, if it’s true that a video is shown and those that attended were given a 25 cent raise, that in itself is weird and raises some questions. Like, if a client told me, “Why are you doing this exactly? What’s going on here?” and hopefully there’s not different intentions than what they should be.

MATT: Right. But she also mentioned too – I found this interesting – the assembly member who doesn’t sound like he’s too involved but he is the CEO, years back, convinced a mentally handicapped Scientology practitioner to spend $30,000 on two ostrich eggs as part of an ostrich breeding scheme. I just found that really interesting.

NASIR: Yeah, and I guess that case was settled out of court so we don’t know what happened with that. I mean, these articles talk about it. Frankly, you know, history and people’s backgrounds are important. So, it might be something to think about.

MATT: What’s an ostrich breeding scheme though?

NASIR: Oh, well, what’s the scheme? I was going to say, if you ask me about the breeding part, I’m not sure it’s appropriate to talk about the birds.

MATT: I don’t know if they still do the commercial with the alpaca commercials that used to be on all the time. I don’t think that was a scheme but I think they were trying to push alpacas onto people.

NASIR: Ah, yeah, I don’t think so. Anyway, I think some of this is obvious but, for some business owners, it’s important that, you know, they may be religious and it’s not of them to separate their personal lives with their business lives. Again, I’m not saying that’s a problem, you know, but you just have to be a little bit careful when it comes to policymaking or how you treat people. Even your hiring practices. I’ve seen this with smaller shops that may not be as concerning but you’ll see where all upper-level management are the same – you know, go to the same church or whatever religious institution. That can pose a problem later, especially once your company becomes a little more diverse and then those that are not of that particular religion start being treated differently or being felt that they’re being treated differently.

MATT: Yeah, exactly.

NASIR: Did you ever see that documentary on HBO on the Scientology? It’s very well done.

MATT: I don’t think so.

NASIR: I mean, it was very thorough. Since then, I haven’t heard much about Scientology. You know, I was concerned about doing this podcast, honestly. They sue everybody that gets in their way and they’re pretty aggressive. I actually love the Scientology Church. I mean, it’s my favorite church. It’s actually my favorite science-based church.

MATT: Well, we didn’t say anything bad about actual Scientology.

NASIR: No, yeah, you’re right. I didn’t.
All right. Well, I think that’s our episode.
Thanks for joining us!

MATT: Keep it sound and keep it smart!

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Legally Sound Smart Business

A business podcast with a legal twist

Legally Sound Smart Business is a podcast by Pasha Law PC covering different topics in business advice and news with a legal twist with attorneys Nasir Pasha and Matt Staub.

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