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."
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."