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Suit alleges religious bias at Defender Direct

October 8, 2011

Religious discrimination cases usually involve workers alleging an employer is hostile to their faith. The employee is disciplined for hanging a crucifix in the cubicle, or for telling customers to “have a blessed day.”

But a religious discrimination lawsuit brought in federal court by a former Defender Direct manager has an unusual twist: The employee says she was fired for not embracing her boss’s religious beliefs.

defender-factbox.gifKelly McCourt contends a female supervisor frequently urged that she read a daily religious devotional e-mailed to her and placed on her desk at the Indianapolis-based company, which sells ADT security systems and Dish Network subscriptions.

McCourt “made it clear … that she did not share her religious beliefs,” states the suit filed in July and due for a hearing this month in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

“She felt it was being pushed down her throat to the point that it made her uncomfortable,” Andrew Jones, a principal of the Indianapolis law firm Gibbons Jones, which represents McCourt, told IBJ.

Defender Direct referred questions to its lawyer.

“Their position is that this case is without merit … frivolous,” said David E. Wright, an attorney at Kroger Gardis & Regas, who represents Defender.

Wright on Oct. 4 filed a response to the suit, stating “no tangible employment action was taken against [McCourt] based upon religious or personal beliefs of plaintiff, or of the plaintiff’s supervisors.”

The company, in its response this month, said McCourt’s supervisor had e-mailed devotionals to her but that she had not made it clear she did not want to receive them.

McCourt alleges that at one point her supervisor told her that if she wanted to “make it” at Defender that she needed to get on the daily devotional list of Defender Direct’s president, Marcia Raab.

Defender denied the allegation.

McCourt’s attorneys won’t have to look far to find Raab’s mention of spiritual development as part of a corporate culture that focuses on personal improvement and cultivating leadership skills among its 1,500 employees.

But there’s no specific focus on Christianity.

“We invest more money developing employees from an emotional, health, financial, intellectual and spiritual standpoint than we do on job training,” Raab said recently in an issue of Success magazine.

“Each year, all of our employees are flown in for a one-day convention which focuses on goal setting, and then has breakout sessions which include health, spirituality, attitude development and charitable giving.”

She said in the piece that Defender tithes 10 percent of its profits—a biblical practice among many Christians to financially support the ministry of the church.

Corporate cultures

Defender was founded by David Lindsey, who has made mission work a priority in his family life and for Defender Direct. The company has a partnership with Youth With a Mission’s “Homes of Hope” program. It works with businesses, churches, schools and other groups to build homes for poor families in Mexico.

Defender has built more than 100 homes so far in Mexico, Lindsey said in a recent article for National Christian Foundation.

Raab told Success that Defender employees, at some point in their careers, are flown to Mexico to participate in one of the home-building programs the company partners with.

“You might ask if it wouldn’t be cheaper for us to just give the money we invest directly to the programs, and it would,” Raab told Success. “But what we get back are employees who see their work as meaningful and purposeful.”

Defender isn’t the only local company where religion is present in the workplace.

Bryan Bedford, CEO of Indianapolis-based Republic Airways Holdings, is often referred to among employees as “Rev. BB.” The devout Catholic occasionally invokes the name of God in internal communications. Republic’s mission statement includes: “We believe that every employee, regardless of personal beliefs or world view, has been created in the image and likeness of God.”

Bedford’s outlook was so out of the ordinary that after Republic bought Denver-based Frontier Airlines, the Denver Post wrote an extensive piece about it.

One legal studies professor in Denver expressed worry in the story that such environments have the effect of making employees feel that if they’re “not with Jesus,” they’re not on board the company.

Spiritual vs. secular

McCourt’s suit against Defender takes a similar tack, alleging that the company retaliated for her unwillingness to read the devotionals.

The suit alleges that immediately before she was fired in September 2010, her boss asked “if she had read her daily devotional.”

lindsey-david-mug.jpg Lindsey

The company denies any such question was asked before her termination.

“It’s certainly an odd precursor to terminating someone if you bring someone in to fire them. I don’t know what precursor that is,” said McCourt’s attorney, Jones.

McCourt claims she “met or exceeded all legitimate expectations of performance” before being terminated.

Defender, in its recent response filed to the suit, denied that McCourt met or exceeded performance expectations.

A corporate training program can certainly incorporate values, such as honesty, that may also be important in religious doctrine, but a secular company cannot mandate employees ascribe to a particular religion, said Deborah Widiss, associate professor of Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law.

“She needs to show that [her rejection of their religious stance] really was the reason she was fired,” Widiss added.

defender-guidelines.gifMcCourt could not be reached for comment. On her LinkedIn account, she listed her job as a legal arbitrator at Defender Direct. In 2002, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English and history at Indiana University.

She also lists a law degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

Jones denied that McCourt has an aversion to religion. “It’s not like if an employee had a cross in the cubicle she would go running to human resources.”

In fact, McCourt currently is working on her MBA from Taylor University, one of the nation’s oldest Christian evangelical universities.

“Even after she got fired, she decided to finish what she had started,” Jones added.

“I guess if she was hostile [to religion] that she wouldn’t voluntarily attend a place like Taylor,” Jones said.

The suit seeks to have McCourt reinstated to the position of legal arbitrator or comparable position, as well as lost wages and benefits and punitive damages.

In 2008, Defender said it planned to more than triple its Indiana work force by adding upward of 1,100 jobs over 10 years.

The state announced up to $6 million in tax credits and $345,000 in training grants. The city of Indianapolis is providing tax abatement.•

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