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Letter seeking Christians as employees raises concerns

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The director of operations of 20 Subway restaurants across West Virginia may have violated the state Human Rights Act when he sent a letter to several churches and congregations saying his company was "in need of Christian employees."

Kermit Ball, the director of operations for Hammond Group Inc., which owns the Subways, sent the letter, publishing employment opportunities at the restaurants. It was sent to at least four churches and congregations in the Charleston and Huntington areas.

The letter, and subsequent statements from Ball, seem to imply that Hammond Group Inc. would prefer to hire Christian employees, finding them more honest.

The letter, in part, reads: "Due to changing times, we are looking for good honest people. If you have anyone in your congregation in need of a job, or new career, please have them contact us at the address provided above. We are looking for sandwich artists, shift managers, assistant managers and supervisers. The Hammond Group owns and operates 20 Subway restaurants. We are a Christian based company and in need of Christian employees."

When asked about the letter, Ball reiterated its points.

"Robbery and theft in stores is really, really high and we're trying to find honest people to run registers," Ball said. "I'm not elaborating on anything, our owners are Christians."

The local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union thinks that the letter violates the state Human Rights Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating in hiring based on an applicant's religion.

"It's clear to me that it's a violation of the Human Rights Act," said Paul Sheridan, interim director of the West Virginia ACLU. "I hope somebody would look into it."

The West Virginia Human Rights Act bars employers from printing materials that express a preference for potential employees' religions.

The law reads: "It shall be an unlawful discriminatory practice ... For any employer, employment agency or labor organization, prior to the employment or membership, to: print or publish or cause to be printed or published any notice or advertisement relating to employment or membership indicating any preference, limitation, specifications or discrimination based upon race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, disability or age."

Federal law also contains similar prohibitions.

Section VII of the federal Civil Rights Act reads: "It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer...to print or publish or cause to be printed or published any notice or advertisement...indicating any preference, limitation, specification, or discrimination, based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin."

Both state and federal laws allow for religious exemptions if there is a "bona fide occupational qualification for employment." For instance, churches and religious nonprofit groups may consider religion when hiring.

Those exemptions would not seem to cover the Hammond Group, which was established as a for-profit corporation in 1994, according to the Secretary of State's Office.

"The concern is that at least the implication of the letter is only Christians are good, honest people," said Paul Dalzell, a worship service leader, at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Charleston, which received a copy of the letter.

The Unitarian congregation has members of various religions including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and even paganism, Dalzell said. He believes any person, regardless of faith, can be a good person and worker.

"It's the exclusive nature of it," Dalzell said. "Hopefully they're recruiting, not just hiring."

First Presbyterian Church of Charleston, Eastwood Baptist Child Care Center in Huntington and Congregation B'Nai Israel, a Jewish congregation in Charleston, all confirmed that they received the letter.

Emmanuel Baptist Church, the India Center, the Islamic Center and B'Nai Jacob Synagogue, all in Charleston, said they did not receive the letter.

Sheridan, of the ACLU, said there are remedies available for anyone who believes they've been discriminated against.

"The West Virginia Human Rights Act provides that any person who believes that they've been discriminated against based upon religion or other things including race and gender, can file a compliant with the West Virginia Human Rights Commission," Sheridan said.

When complaints are brought before the Human Rights Commission there is an investigative period to determine if there is evidence to support the compliant. The commission must find probable cause to continue from there.

The Human Rights Commission works with the attorney general's office when investigating violation claims.

"The Office of the West Virginia Attorney General has a policy to not comment on pending or active litigation or matters that may come before our office in the future," said Beth Ryan, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

Monsignor Edward Sadie of Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral in Charleston wasn't sure if his church received the letter.

"There are a lot of other non-Christians, Jews, Muslims and some immigrants that may be Sikhs, Hindus that are honest, hard-working faith-filled individuals," Sadie said. "I don't know that you need to be a Christian to make a good Subway sandwich."

Reach Caitlin Cook at caitlin.cook@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.

 


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