A Michigan dentist who streamed contemporary Christian music in her dental office and held prayer meetings for staff members is being sued by four former employees for religious discrimination.
The former employees of Tina Marshall in Lake Orion, Mich., allege they were either fired or reprimanded for objecting to the religious practices, according to a lawsuit filed in August 2015 in Oakland County.
Lawyers for the four plaintiffs told The Washington Post on Wednesday that the case is still in the discovery phase. They have requested a jury trial, which could begin in the summer.
David Kotzian, who is representing the former Marshall employees, would not comment further on what damages his clients are seeking from the suit but referred to the complaint, which specifies “they are seeking damages for loss of past and future income and employment benefits, outrage, humiliation, embarrassment, mental anxiety, emotional distress, and loss of professional reputation.”
“We were all on edge. We were trying to be nice to the patients and do good dental work, but she kept forcing the music and her beliefs on us. Several patients questioned the music, and I turned it off and turned on the TV. So I was ‘disobedient,'” Nancy Kordus, a former dental assistant at Marshall’s office who is a plaintiff in the suit, told the Clarkston News about her former employer.
Kordus said Marshall wanted the music playing at all times in order to “ward off demons,” according to the complaint.
The suit also states that Marshall held morning prayer meetings with the staff, which began as optional gatherings but then became mandatory.
Kordus is among the four former employees, including Kimberly Hinson, Tammy Kulis and Sara Bambard, who are suing Marshall for what they say is her violation of Michigan’s Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act.
Kordus claimed she submitted written requests to Marshall to stop pressuring staff members to conform to Marshall’s religious practices in 2014. Kordus was fired on Aug. 21, 2014.
Kulis, who worked at the front desk of the office, said she felt compelled to resign in October 2014 because of religious harassment and discriminatory practices.
Lawyers for Marshall filed a response to the lawsuit in November, denying claims she forced her religious practices on her staff.
“None of the Plaintiffs were forced to discuss or disclose any religious practices of preference as part of their employment,” the filing stated.
Marshall’s legal representatives have requested that the lawsuit be dismissed.
Her lawyer, Keith Jablonski, told The Washington Post this week his client is “being attacked in this lawsuit for her Christian beliefs, based solely on her desire to play religious music and radio stations in the dental office of the business that she owns.”
“We believe that when the facts, and not baseless allegations, are presented to a jury, we will establish that this group of former disgruntled employees are simply looking to profit off of their own prejudices towards Dr. Marshall and her Christian faith,” he said. “Dr. Marshall flatly denies engaging in any discriminatory employment practices.”
In her court filing, Marshall denied she held mandatory prayer meetings, though she acknowledged she prayed with staff members “on certain occasions, and denied that they were mandatory or daily.”
She also told the Clarkston News that she played religious music because “it’s just soothing to the spirit. I can’t tell you how many patients I have come in and just make comments that it is so calm in here.”
Marshall purchased the dental practice in 2008 but her religious practices were only incorporated at the office as she became part of a local ministry run by Craig Stasio in 2013.
Stasio, who owns the Agape Massage Therapy & Chiropractic in addition to running his ministry, is also included in the lawsuit since Marshall hired Stasio to restructure her dental office in 2015.
Under his management, according to the lawsuit, “Stasio was enlisted to provide the ‘help’ Dr. Marshall needed in terminating the staff members that objected being exposed to the practices and beliefs of the ministry.”
Sarah Bambard, who was hired in 2011 to work at the front desk in Marshall’s office, says she was made office manager by Stasio on July 6, 2015, and instructed by him to only hire new employees that accepted Marshall’s religious practices. Stasio began participating in interviews conducted by Bambard, to assure applicants embraced Marshall’s faith, the lawsuit says.
Many of the new employees under Stasio were members of his religious group, the suit says.
Shortly after Stasio formalized his influence over Marshall’s office, Hinson, a dental hygienist, and Bambard were fired in late July 2015.
Stasio has also filed a response to the lawsuit, denying the claims presented by the four women. His lawyers did not respond to a request for comment.
Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, told The Washington Post that in cases of religious harassment, “the basic question is whether the unwelcome religious statements and conduct are so severe or pervasive that they create a hostile, abusive working environment.”
“Religious coercion in the workplace, whether implicit or explicit, is unlawful,” he said. “Bosses can’t force employees to pray with them or punish workers for not embracing or joining the employers’ faith.”
In order for the lawsuit to have merit, Mach said the former employees need to prove their boss crossed the line and forced her religion on the staff by detailing the frequency and nature of her conduct and proof they raised objections.
Meanwhile, Stasio’s profile in his Michigan community has become the subject of media attention.
A local news report in November suggested that Stasio’s ministry is cult-like in that members refer to Stasio as “the prophet” and frequently cut ties with family and friends once they come under his influence.
Stasio’s religious group is composed primarily of “young, attractive women,” many of whom live in communal housing provided by Stasio, according to Fox Detroit.
He has denied claims that his faith group is a cult or that he has influenced members of his spiritual community to distance themselves from their families.
He cited the religious conversions that some members of his spiritual community have undergone and said the new religious experience has “brought a lot of tension in their relationships,” according to the Clarkston News.
“A lot of the people after getting constantly rejected and attacked by their families, they kind of distanced themselves. Well that was perceived as,’ I told them to do this,’ which I was the polar opposite, if your family doesn’t agree with your faith choice, that’s understandable, love them the best you can,” he added.