Nevada worker fired for not accepting Scientology, files lawsuit

2016-05-04 11:06
Nevada Assemblyman Brent Jones makes a presentation during a hearing at the Legislative Building in Carson City. (Cathleen Allison, AP)

Nevada Assemblyman Brent Jones makes a presentation during a hearing at the Legislative Building in Carson City. (Cathleen Allison, AP)

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Las Vegas – A Catholic woman fired from her job at a bottled water company led by a Nevada lawmaker has filed a federal lawsuit against the business, saying she was pressured to watch videos on Scientology and was denied pay raises because of her religious beliefs.

Grecia Echevarria-Hernandez filed a discrimination lawsuit April 26 against Las Vegas-based AffinityLifestyles.com, also known as Real Alkalized Water. Republican Assemblyman Brent Jones is president of the company. His son, Blain Jones, is executive vice president of the company and is running for a Nevada Assembly seat.

"I have not seen the legal documents at this time, so I cannot comment on the alleged claims," Jones said in a statement on Tuesday.

The plaintiff said she was hired in March 2015 as a "brand ambassador" for Real Water, which markets water infused with electrons that "can help your body to restore balance, and reach your full potential!" according to the company website.

On her first day, Echevarria-Hernandez said she was forced to watch several videos with religious undertones, including "The Secret" and others based on Scientology.

Her supervisor later told her that she could get a 25-cent raise if she participated in self-betterment courses, and the plaintiff said she tried to sit through one of the classes. But it also had to do with Scientology and made her feel uncomfortable, so she left early.

The plaintiff let her supervisor know she didn't want to participate because she held different religious beliefs – she was baptised Catholic and attends a Christian church. As a result, she was not eligible for raises, according to the lawsuit.

"Plaintiff felt alienated by all of the other employees because they all held the same religious beliefs, and clearly did not approve of her choice to not participate," the complaint said.

Discrimination

Echevarria-Hernandez said that she wasn't previously written up for poor performance, but her supervisor wrote three reports on October 8, 2015, alleging she wasn't fulfilling her job duties. Another person fired her the next day.

"The termination was not based on deficient job performance as defendant claims," the lawsuit says. "In reality, defendant sought a reason to terminate an employee with differing religious views."

Echevarria-Hernandez alleges her treatment violated Nevada law and constituted discrimination, retaliation and an unlawful employment practice under the federal Civil Rights Act, which applies to any business with 15 or more employees. She's seeking compensation for past and future lost income and benefits, unspecified damages for emotional distress, and punitive damages.

No court date has been set.

The case will depend heavily upon the content of the videos and whether they constitute proselytising, said Ruben Garcia, a professor of labour law at UNLV's Boyd School of Law. It's not illegal to discuss religion in the workplace, but such talk can cross the line when it becomes pervasive or creates a hostile work environment, he said.

To win, the plaintiff would need to prove that she was fired or denied raises based on religion, or that the religious environment in the company hindered her ability to do her job, according to Amy Rose, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. Many employment discrimination cases filed in federal court are settled before they make it to trial because they must go through a mediation step first.

Lawsuits

Brent Jones was elected in 2014 and is known for stances against taxes, Common Core education standards and the state health insurance exchange. He's being heavily targeted this year by both Democrats and more moderate Republicans after recruiting a slate of anti-tax candidates to run against incumbent Republicans who supported Gov Brian Sandoval's $1.4bn tax package.

Jones has spoken publicly about his belief in Scientology, a religion developed in the 1950s by science fiction author L Ron Hubbard.

It's not the first time Jones and his association with Scientology have been subject to a lawsuit.

A fellow member of the church who had previously suffered brain damage sued Jones and the Church of Scientology years ago, saying he lost money when an ostrich-raising venture Jones ran in California in the 1990s failed. The case was settled out of court, but it emerged again as a campaign attack in a colourful 2012 Republican primary that Jones ultimately lost.

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