Ira Chemers dresses like a salesman. He wears a cream-colored turtleneck under a cappuccino blazer, and sports pinky rings on both hands. Cars were his business for ten years. And he was good at it, he says. He was working at Stillwater Ford when he was recruited to join the New Brighton-based Minar Ford, Inc., which opened in 1929 and bills itself as one of the oldest Ford dealerships in the state. Chemers signed on as a lease manager in July 1996. About a year later, he was promoted to sales manager. In November 1999 he climbed the ladder to general sales manager. Chemers says he enjoyed his work and was paid well, some $120,000 in salary and commissions in 1999.
While working at the dealership, Chemers, who is Jewish, noticed that his boss, Cush Minar, took his Christian faith very seriously. "Most of the people that I came in contact with knew Mr. Minar through the church," recalls Chemers. But it wasn't until Minar's faith began to permeate the workplace that Chemers became concerned.
Suddenly, daily prayer sessions were being held in the mechanics' room. "I would skip those," remembers Chemers. But as a manager, Chemers claims, he couldn't avoid the Christian prayers that Minar began using to open all management meetings: "He would talk about Jesus Christ and 'Give us strength.'" Chemers recalls religious comments becoming increasingly common at the office. He alleges that a co-worker scolded him for refusing to bow his head during Minar's prayers, and that a sales representative gave him They Thought for Themselves, a book promoting the religious conversion of Jews to Christianity.
Chemers says he made it clear to his boss that he was offended. He complained regularly about the prayers, and told Minar that he believed religious comments were inappropriate at the office. Chemers even suggested Minar contact a lawyer, to find out whether or not his conduct was legal. Chemers claims things were at their worst last February. "I want everyone in this organization to be a Christian," he remembers his boss telling him. "Not all will be Christians, but that will be their demise on Judgment Day."
"I said to him, 'How can you say stuff like that?' And he said, 'It's fact. It's in the Bible'," says Chemers, shaking his head at the recollection. Inside of 48 hours, the conflict came to a head. A little more than two months after promoting him, Minar called Chemers into his office and fired him for "performance issues." "There was never, ever a discussion, before me being terminated, about my performance," Chemers says, still fuming over the incident.
Chemers turned out to be the one to call an attorney. On July 11, 2000 he sued Minar Ford in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, charging that he was discriminated against because of his religion. Under the Minnesota Human Rights Act and the U.S. Civil Rights Act it is illegal to fire an employee because of his or her religion. Chemers is seeking damages in excess of $100,000 for lost pay and mental anguish. Attorneys for both sides, along with other local lawyers, can't recall a similar case in Minnesota where an employee was allegedly fired after complaining about prayer sessions at work. "Certainly under state law this is going to raise a lot of novel issues regarding religion and the workplace," says Jim Hilbert, Chemers's attorney.
Minar Ford filed its written answer to Chemers's charges with the court in August. The three-page document allows that the company has a "daily, optional prayer session" and that Minar opens management meetings with a "Christian prayer." There's also an admission that Minar led a "Christian prayer" at a company holiday party. But beyond that, it denies every claim Chemers makes, including Minar's alleged proclamation that everyone working at the Ford dealership should be a Christian. Minar's answer acknowledges that Chemers was fired February 24, 2000, but contends Minar had "a legitimate, nondiscriminatory basis for terminating plaintiff." Minar also argues that the conduct alleged by Chemers's complaint is protected by the First Amendment's guarantees for freedom of religion and speech.
Cush Minar did not return City Pages' phone calls for this story. His attorney, Robert Haugen, explains that he advised the car dealer not to comment. "The allegations in the complaint are at least partially untrue," Haugen says. "And without going through them point by point, I really can't comment on the entirety of the complaint."
At the heart of the case is the balance between Chemers's right to religious freedom and Minar Ford's First Amendment right to free speech. While the constitutional separation of church and state would prohibit prayers at a public school or government building, there's no law banning prayer sessions at a private business like Minar Ford. "There's no direct prohibition against prayer at the workplace in the private sector," says employment and civil-rights attorney Stephen Cooper, a former commissioner of human rights for the State of Minnesota. In the past decade, though, Cooper has noticed a sharp increase in the number of employers advancing religious ideas at work: "We're seeing lots of mid- to small-sized employers viewing their workplace as their fiefdom, and they believe that they can dictate what the religion of their employees ought to be."