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Mandatory Company Prayer Meetings Spark Lawsuit

December 8, 1987

PHOENIX, Ariz. (AP) _ A company that requires workers to attend weekly prayer meetings faces a U.S. District Court hearing over its dismissal of an employee who brought the practice to the attention of federal regulators.

Louis Pelvas, an aetheist, complained to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1984 that he and fellow employees of Townley Manufacturing Co.’s Eloy plant were required to attend prayer meetings every Monday.

The agency sent investigators to sit through one of the ″devotionals″ and, a few days later, the 64-year-old Pelvas did not have a job.

The EEOC filed a lawsuit in July 1986 charging that Pelvas was fired for protesting the meetings, which he said he often sat through with radio headphones over his ears.

Townley, based in Candler, Fla., denied the allegation and said Pelvas quit after his job was phased out in Eloy and he turned down an offer of a new job in Florida.

But Mary Jo O’Neill, an EEOC lawyer, said the Florida job offer ″was not really a serious offer because they knew he would not be able to tolerate″ the mandatory religious meetings in Florida.

U.S. District Judge Earl Carroll denied the EEOC’s request for a pretrial ruling in its favor, saying ″EEOC has not shown that Townley lacked a valid business reason for this move.″

But the judge agreed to hold today’s hearing to determine if Pelvas was illegally fired.

The judge has issued a pretrial injunction that blocks Townley from ordering employees to attend the prayer meetings on company time.

Townely has appealed that order to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

″An employer must accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or lack thereof, unless the employer can demonstrate that it is unable to do so without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business,″ Carroll wrote in his order.

He rejected a claim that Townley is a religious company and could therefore order employees to attend the prayer meetings, saying Townley officials ″have not asserted that one of the tenets of their religion is to make profits by manufacturing mining equipment.″

But Townley’s lawyers argue that the mandatory prayer sessions are ″constitutionally protected forms of religious expression.″

The company’s owner and founder, J.O. ″Jake″ Townley, accuses the EEOC of aiming for the ″elimination of God from the Townley workplace.″

The EEOC, Townley said, ″is attempting to establish secular humanism, or atheism, as a religion to be followed within the Townley Company as opposed to the Christian faith-based tenets upon which the company was founded.″

The central question, Townley said, ″is whether private persons may form and operate Christian businesses according to Bible-based principles.″

The case attracted the attention of the American Jewish Congress, which filed a friend of the court brief to support the EEOC.

Townley’s lawyers said they are waging a landmark court fight that will affect thousands of private businesses, including a half dozen Townley plants outside Arizona where employees still must attend the Monday morning devotionals.

Jake Townley said in a deposition that he and his wife, Helen, founded the company with divine help.

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