Fired workers file religion lawsuit

Honolulu Advertiser/December 17, 2000

By William Cole

An unusual civil rights case has arisen over a Mo'ili'ili health food store involving accusations that its Krishna management discriminated against nine former employees who were not of the same religion.

Employment civil rights complaints usually involve discrimination relating to gender, harassment, pregnancy, race, disability or age, civil rights representatives said.

But the nine former workers have pursued complaints with the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging religious discrimination against the management of Down to Earth Natural Foods, according to court documents. The chain is owned by Healthy's Inc.

Four of the nine employees, fired in May or June of 1999, claim in lawsuits filed in Circuit Court that the store's owners and management - followers of a Krishna sect devoted to the teachings of guru Chris Butler - decided to "take their store back."

Jack Dwyer, Healthy's lawyer, called the allegations a case of reverse religious discrimination against the group he says are not "Krishnas," but followers of Vedic scripture. "They (the former employees) are discriminating against a minority religion - that's what they are doing," Dwyer said. "They are saying if you are a member of a minority religion and are trying to make an honest buck, run an honest business, that you can't make business decisions without jeopardy of being sued for religious discrimination."

The lawyer for the fired workers, however, said the store's management was looking for excuses.

"What they did was look for reasons to get rid of people," said attorney Matthew Viola. "The fact is, they got rid of nine people who weren't followers of their religion in the span of two to three months for bogus reasons."

Civil Rights Commission spokesman Al Lynde said about 90 percent of the complaints the commission receives are over employment - but religious discrimination usually ranks low within those filings. During fiscal year 2000, there were 577 employment complaints.

"Religion is not in the top five historically," Lynde said.

Although not advocating either side, American Civil Liberties Union legal director Brent White said the case is out of the ordinary based on the group being accused of discrimination.

"It's more often (Krishna followers) getting fired because of their beliefs," he said.

Down to Earth Natural Foods stores also are in Kailua and in Pearl City. Two other stores are on Maui. The Mo'ili'ili store has a grocery, deli and seating area, and sells vitamins and other supplements. A banner hung inside the entry says, "Love Animals - Don't Eat Them."

Mark Fergusson, Healthy's chief executive officer, declined comment about the legal action, but said Butler "has no active involvement in the store at all."

Favoritism alleged

The civil suit seeks damages on behalf of former employees Charles Ridley, Sean McSweeney and Christine Reeves. A separate suit was filed on behalf of former worker Dayalan Nagalingam.

Named as defendants are Healthy's Inc., doing business as Down to Earth Natural Foods; Fergusson; Mo'ili'ili store manager Peter Van Osdol and produce manager George Johnson.

The suits claim the three individuals, as well as other Mo'ili'ili store managers, are members of the Butler Krishna sect. According to the complaint filed by Viola and co-counsel Richard Wilson, Ridley, the former grocery manager, was a "very popular manager" who supervised Krishna and non-Krishna employees.

"The grocery department grew and thrived under his leadership," the complaint states, and Ridley received "numerous performance awards and commendations."

Attempts to reach former store employees were unsuccessful.

The suit alleges that in 1998, "it appeared to Mr. Ridley that Healthy's was engaged in a concerted effort to both hire and promote individuals of the Krishna religion, irrespective of ability or seniority."

On June 18, 1999, Ridley was fired for failing to take "appropriate corrective action" over a worker's alleged sexual harassment of a female employee who was a Krishna follower, the suit said.

Ridley said in his suit he was fired because he complained of the "hostile environment," and "Krishna favoritism."

Dwyer, who disputes the employees' version of events, said religion was never discussed. "None of the employees were asked what their beliefs are," he said. "They were never asked to do any religious activities - or buy books ar attend prayer meetings or chants. Religion had no part of business discussions on any day."

Dwyer said of the approximately 250 employees of the chain, less than 10 percent last year were thought to be followers of the Vedic scriptures. Only some of the Vedic group follow the teachings of Butler, Dwyer said.

'Pattern is clear'

In court papers, the food store said there was a legitimate basis for firing the employees. Two cashiers were accused of "under-ringing" sales and another employee was fired for failing to follow cash-handling procedures after $1,392 was discovered missing, the store's court papers said.

Dwyer also said at least one Vedic follower, a deli server, was fired in addition to non-Vedic employees. "There was no pattern at all," Dwyer said. "Each firing had a separate history."

But Viola maintains the pattern is clear at the Mo'ili'ili store.

"It shouldn't matter what anybody's religion is," Viola said. "But at that store, it matters. If you are not one of them (Krishnas), you get treated less favorably, at least that's what happened to our clients."

The complaints and the lawsuits are still pending before the commissions and in circuit court.

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