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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 7, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 36
Religious liberty: Do you have the right not to believe in Jesus?
Section One
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Religious liberty: Do you have the right not to believe in Jesus?

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

An Oregon lawsuit is testing how the First Amendment religious liberty rights of non-Christians will be applied in the workplace.

Ryan Coleman is suing his employer for firing him after he refused to attend mandatory Bible study. The employer, Dahled Up Construction, has not denied Coleman's charges but characterized the Bible study sessions as an 'opportunity' offered to employees.

Company owner Joel Dahl told The Oregonian newspaper that he conceived of his business as a 'second chance' employer. He had served prison time for attempted second-degree assault and struggled with drugs and alcohol, he said, and when he started his construction company in 2016, he hoped to hire other formerly incarcerated people.

Coleman has a past felony conviction and served a prison sentence for child neglect and for selling methamphetamines. But he's been clean and sober for years, and recently won custody of his 10- and 14-year-old sons.

Coleman told the Washington Post that after being hired by Dahl's company in October 2017, he woke up excited every morning to work with his painting crew.

'It's tough to find a job like that,' he said.

Coleman added that he didn't know about the Bible study sessions until after he started working for Dahl. Coleman is not a practicing Christian and told Dahl multiple times that he wasn't comfortable attending the Bible study.

According to Coleman, he first asked Dahl if he could schedule other meetings or appointments during Bible study hour but was told that the religious meetings were mandatory.

When he explained to Dahl that he had different beliefs, Coleman says that Dahl responded, 'If you want to keep your job, everybody needs to attend. If not, I'm going to be forced to replace you.'

Coleman says he told Dahl in an April 2018 phone call that he had a right not to attend the Christian Bible study, at which point he was fired, according to court documents.

Coleman's attorney, Corinne Schram, said she knows of no other reason that Coleman was let go. Coleman was able to find another job after he was let go from Dahled Up Construction, but he has stepped away from that job since gaining custody of his sons.

Dahl's attorney, Kent Hickam, has given different explanations of the Bible study sessions to different news outlets. He told The Oregonian that the Bible studies were required, essentially confirming Coleman's charges.

But he told the Washington Post that the sessions were a 'weekly, motivational team-building exercise' held at a homeless shelter. He said the sessions were scheduled at the end of an afternoon shift. Employees who attended would be paid for that hour, and employees who did not attend would not be paid.

When asked to clarify whether the session was mandatory for employees, Hickam answered, 'There's a lot of great lessons to be learned from the Bible, and I think it's wonderful he made this opportunity available for his employees.'

Coleman is suing for $50,000 for loss of income, and an additional $750,000 for mental stress and humiliation. He said he hopes his case will show others that they are entitled to stand up for their beliefs, even if they differ from their employers'.

'It doesn't matter if you believe in Allah or Buddha or anybody,' Coleman said. 'It should not be used against you if you're trying to make a paycheck for a company you enjoy working for. It's your right.'

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