In and of themselves, though, the prayer sessions are not the issue. What will matter in court is whether Chemers was treated differently because of his religion. In Minnesota the best-known case concerning an employer's deeply held religious beliefs was decided by the state Supreme Court in 1985: State by McClure vs. Sports and Health Club, Inc. The owners of the local health-club chain were self-described born-again Christians. The club questioned potential employees about everything from their sex habits to whether or not the applicant believed in God. Employees were also fired (or promoted) based on religion. The Sports and Health Club argued in part that their conduct was a constitutionally protected exercise of religious faith. The state's high court found that the club's actions were in violation of the state's Human Rights Act and that the club's First Amendment privileges could not be used to impede the rights of others.
Chemers's attorney thinks that the Sports and Health Club decision could blunt Minar's First Amendment defense claim. "What they found is that it was certainly reasonable for the state to limit certain types of speech when it interfered with an employee's civil rights," Hilbert argues.
Minar's attorney, on the other hand, insists that the two cases are only broadly analogous. "The reality that I have found from my interviews with employees and management [of Minar Ford] is radically different than that which is alleged," Haugen counters. "And in no way was Minar Ford being run as the individuals in the Sports and Health Club case were attempting to run that business."
The case, which is scheduled to be heard in early August, has touched a nerve locally. In the wake of the suit, three local religious organizations--including the Jewish Community Relations Council and Minnesota Catholic Conference--sent a letter to Minar expressing concern about the allegations. But Minar's response suggests the car dealer isn't interested in getting into a war of words. "I have no intentions of discussing any past or current employees, as that would be unethical and against company policy. The requirements at Minar Ford are integrity, honesty, and job performance," Minar responded in a letter dated August 8. "My faith is such that I do not put down someone else's beliefs in order to elevate my own. Those that wish to participate may attend prayer time."
Today Chemers says he's still "looking for work," but the lawsuit has hampered his ability to find another job. The local car business is a close-knit community, and when his departure from Minar comes up, he says, the tenor of interviews usually changes. "I've had many interviews with people who say, 'Oh, you're the guy'," says Chemers. "If I say I was let go because I believe I was discriminated against because of my religion, they become very apprehensive."