A 34-year-old painter is suing Dahled Up Construction, a company based south of Portland, Ore., for allegedly firing him after he refused to join a Christian Bible group for employees. Ryan Coleman is seeking $800,000 from the company after its owner allegedly said participation in the Bible group was required if he wanted to keep his job.
Coleman told The Washington Post that when he explained to the company's owner, Joel Dahl, that he had different beliefs, Dahl said: "If you want to keep your job, everybody needs to attend. If not, I'm going to be forced to replace you."
Coleman said he initially took part in the weekly, hour-long Bible classes for six months, fearing he wouldn't be able to find another job.
Dahl's attorney, Kent Hickam, described Dahl as a "second-chance employer." Dahl told the Oregonian that he once served prison time for attempted second-degree assault and struggled with drugs and alcohol. He said he started Dahled Up Construction in 2016 after years of staying sober with the hope of hiring other convicted felons or those who have battled addiction.
Coleman has a past felony conviction and served a prison sentence for child neglect and for selling methamphetamine. But he's been sober for years and recently won custody of his 10- and 14-year-old sons.
Coleman told The Post that after being hired by Dahled Up Construction in October, he woke up excited every morning to work with his painting crew.
"It's tough to find a job like that," he said.
Hickam told the Oregonian that the Bible studies were required. But when reached by The Post, Hickam said 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.
Asked repeatedly to clarify whether the session was mandatory for employees, Hickam said, "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 said he didn't learn about the Bible sessions until after he started working for Dahl. Coleman told The Post that he first asked Dahl if he could schedule appointments or other meetings during the Bible study hour so he wouldn't have to miss work. Dahl's response, Coleman said, was that there was no other option and that Coleman had to be there.
Coleman is not a practicing Christian and told Dahl multiple times that he wasn't comfortable attending the Bible study. In April, Coleman allegedly told Dahl in a 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 painting after he was let go from Dahled Up Construction, but he has stepped away from that job since gaining custody of his sons.
Deborah Widiss, a law professor at Indiana University at Bloomington, said federal law prohibits companies from firing or hiring based on an employee's religious beliefs. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers cannot discriminate against workers on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin or religion. Protections for employees' religious choices are important not only in cases of discrimination, Widiss said, but also to accommodate and support workers' practices and beliefs.
Coleman is suing for $50,000 for alleged loss of income, and an additional $750,000 for mental stress and humiliation.
Coleman 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."