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Exec blames bias for firing

A suit says the Christian president of Meguiar's Inc. had expected him to be `on fire for Jesus.'

January 23, 2007|Christopher Goffard | Times Staff Writer

A former executive of an Irvine car wax manufacturer alleges in a lawsuit that the company fired him because he had not pursued "a Christian lifestyle" and wasn't "on fire for Jesus."

Atticus O. Firey, 34, of Newport Beach contends Meguiar's Inc. committed religious discrimination when it fired him in July after nearly 10 years with the company. Company president Barry Meguiar repeatedly urged Firey, then the chief operating officer, to attend church, the suit alleges, and told him he was "robbing this company of the blessing of God by not being on your knees and on fire for Jesus."

Meguiar, who is host of a cable TV and radio program called "Car Crazy," did not return a call seeking comment. His lawyer, Richard Ruben, said religion had nothing to do with Firey's firing. He said the company's senior management decided to terminate Firey because his job performance was sub-par, with a management style that was "demeaning" and "negative."

"The company was suffering economically, and Mr. Firey was not showing up at the office and was only sporadically attending to his duties," Ruben said.

He added that the company's management includes "people of all religions" and characterized the lawsuit as a "publicity stunt." He said he expected a judge to throw out the suit, because Firey had previously agreed to submit to arbitration, rather than go to the courts, should such a dispute arise.

The suit, filed Friday in Orange County Superior Court, says Meguiar sat in Firey's office and read to him from the Bible, thrust Christian books on him and demanded he read them and forced managers to attend prayer meetings. When Firey asked about a promised bonus, the suit says, Meguiar said he would not give it to him until Firey joined a Christian church.

Confronted with his behavior, the suit says, Meguiar said he had the right to manage the business, which has some 300 employees, by the tenets of Pentecostal Christianity.

The company hired and fired employees based on religion, the suit says, with Meguiar tutoring executives on how to interview prospective employees in a way that elicited information on their religious beliefs. In one case, Meguiar asked a candidate whether he thought he would go to heaven or hell if he died today, the suit says. When the candidate said he was a Catholic trying to lead a virtuous life, the suit alleges, Meguiar replied that merely "being a good person and following a works-oriented religion" would not save him from hell.

Firey, who is Meguiar's former son-in-law, alleges in his suit that in another instance, his boss tried to block the hiring of an employee because she was living "in sin as a fornicator" with her boyfriend.

"If there were two candidates and one was a Christian but had lesser skills than a non-Christian, Mr. Meguiar would pick the Christian," the suit alleges. In one case, the suit says, Meguiar blocked the hire because he was not "Christian" and accepted a weaker candidate who went to church.

Stuart Jasper, Firey's attorney, said the lawsuit was necessary because the company had "reneged on its obligation to pick an arbitration service." The lawsuit asks for unspecified damages and asks the court both to compel arbitration and to prevent the company from continuing the alleged discriminatory practices.

Jon Gunnemann, a professor of social ethics at the School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, said all companies have a "corporate culture," often with powerful implicit signals -- such as what kind of jokes are acceptable -- that define their boundaries.

"You learn very quickly what can get you hired and what can get you fired," he said. "Almost every business does have a corporate culture which functions not much differently from explicit religious belief. It's not easy to say why the one is all right and the other is not."


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