New allegations that Hobby Lobby fired a pregnant employee are catapulting the controversial chain into national headlines again. RH Reality Check (RHRC) reported yesterday that a supervisor at the store’s Flowood, Miss., branch terminated Felicia Allen after she sought maternity leave.
Allen told RHRC that she discovered her pregnancy shortly after starting a job as a cashier. The supervisor promised Allen that she could take maternity leave without losing her job. But that promise didn’t last long: Allen was later informed that she’d be terminated, but could reapply after her child’s birth.
That, too, didn’t happen. When she attempted to go back to work after the birth of her child, she says the supervisor prevented her from even reapplying for her old job. “I was like, I can’t get fired,” she told RHRC. “She can’t terminate me because I have to go have my child. I started asking everybody on the job, ‘Can they do this?’ And even the assistant manager who had just got hired [said,] ‘No, that’s not right.’”
This is where Allen’s tale takes an unusual turn. When she attempted to sue the chain for pregnancy discrimination, she discovered that she’d signed a binding arbitration agreement upon her hire. That agreement legally prohibited her from filing suit. Instead, she had two options: Secular arbitration or arbitration facilitated by a Christian outfit, Peacemaker Ministries.
As RHRC reports, Peacemaker doesn’t hide its sectarian mission. “Generally, Christians are not free to sue other Christians, at least not until they have exhausted the process that Jesus sets forth in Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. God instructs Christians to resolve their disputes within the church itself, with the assistance of other Christians if necessary,” its website says.
That probably means little to anyone unfamiliar with the Greens’ preferred brand of fundamentalism. But the “Rules of Procedure” posted on Peacemaker’s website provide more details about what disgruntled Hobby Lobby employees can anticipate from the process.
“The purpose of Christian conciliation is to glorify God by helping people to resolve disputes in a conciliatory rather than an adversarial manner,” it says. It later adds, “These Rules may be used by the Institute for Christian Conciliation™, a local Christian conciliation ministry, a church, or any other organization or person who wishes to help parties resolve conflicts pursuant to these Rules.”
Christians certainly have a legal right to pursue alternative means of resolving conflict. And Hobby Lobby’s arbitration agreement isn’t an uncommon corporate practice. Its use of Peacemaker Ministries, however, sets it quite apart. In this, it resembles a ministry more than it does a corporation—albeit a ministry that made $3.3 billion in sales last year.
Of course, that’s what Hobby Lobby’s owners, the Greens, have repeatedly argued: That they run the chain as a Christian business and exercise religious freedom rights through it. But here, again, it seems that Hobby Lobby’s Christian mission is really defined by restricting the rights of workers. And then there’s the question of coercion.
Peacemaker’s mission statement can be read as an argument for “Christian conciliation” instead of a secular arbitration process that promises slightly more protection for workers. It establishes a moral standard for “conciliation” and its statement quite explicitly states that, as a general practice, Christians aren’t free to sue other Christians. By offering Peacemaker as an alternative to secular arbitration, the devout Greens have effectively declared that this is their position, too—and that can’t be a particularly healthy work environment for Christian employees, let alone employees who belong to minority faith traditions.
RHRC reports that Hobby Lobby didn’t return requests for comment about its maternity leave policy. The chain also hasn’t commented about its use of Peacemaker Ministries.
It’s unclear if Hobby Lobby’s arbitration practices are actually illegal. But they do fuel fears that Hobby Lobby could attempt to exploit last month’s Supreme Court victory to seriously undermine workers’ rights.