Day care demands worker “celebrate” LGBT inclusion
A child care center refuses to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs
Nelli Parisenkova objects to reading books to infants and toddlers that affirm same-sex marriage, yet the 53-year-old California childcare worker was not prepared for what would follow when she asked a co-worker to read the books in her place. She was escorted from the property by a security guard and ultimately fired for declining to “celebrate diversity.”
In a complaint filed in a Los Angeles state court Thursday, Parisenkova contends that employer Bright Horizons denied her request for a religious accommodation without considering alternatives to requiring her to read books that violate her Biblical beliefs about marriage. Bright Horizons operates more than 700 day care centers throughout North America.
Attorneys associated with the Thomas More Society levied seven charges against the company and its local director, Katy Callas, from religious discrimination to wrongful termination. The crux of the lawsuit is the charge that the company and its local director showed hostility toward Parisenkova’s religious views by refusing to make a reasonable accommodation for her beliefs.
For four years, Parisenkova said, staff at the company’s Studio City location informally accommodated her beliefs. That ended in April, she said, when director Katy Callas summoned her to her office and angrily berated her. Parisenkova recalled that Callas, red in the face, leaned over her desk, telling her, “If you cannot celebrate with us, then Bright Horizons is not a place for you.”
Parisenkova went back to work, but later that morning Callas summoned her again, placed her on administrative leave, and had her escorted from the building by a security guard. Because it wasn’t time for her normal ride home, she had to walk 15-20 minutes to the studio gate to await a ride-share vehicle. She waited in the sun for 40-60 minutes on a 96-degree day.
A Christian, Parisenkova believes that marriage is a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman. She believes it would be sinful for her to promote intimate relationships that are contrary to her faith. Bright Horizons’ library included books with titles like Daddy, Papa, and Me and Mommy, Mama, and Me, both by Leslea Newman, and Love Makes a Family by Sophie Beer—books Parisenkova said she could not in good conscience read to young children. She did not seek to remove the books or prevent their being read by other workers. She simply wanted to opt out of reading them.
Religious employees have historically faced conflicts between their faith and workplace demands over Sabbath observance, dress, or grooming. Increasingly, lawsuits over same-sex marriage and “gender-affirming” ideologies—often pushed by diversity, equity, and inclusion officers—are the battleground for those tensions.
Federal law has long provided recourse for religious workers facing workplace demands contrary to their faith. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires companies with 15 or more employees to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs—unless the company can demonstrate that the accommodation would cause it an “undue hardship.”
In the past, employers have faced only a light burden, described as “featherweight,” in showing hardship. That may soon change because the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that provides it with an opportunity to reinterpret Title VII.
In Groff v. DeJoy, the court will review an appeals court ruling that sided with the U.S. Postal Service’s denial of a postal worker’s request to have Sunday off. USPS reasoned that granting the request would unduly burden co-workers and damage morale. At least two justices, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, previously indicated that they are willing to revisit the nature of the employer’s burden.
Parisenkova’s attorneys do not claim her employer violated Title VII, but the California law they rely on echoes the federal law’s provisions. Like federal law, California Government Code Section 12940(l) says it is unlawful to discriminate against a person based on religion unless the employer demonstrates it has “explored any available reasonable alternative means of accommodating the religious belief but is unable to reasonably accommodate the religious belief without undue hardship.”
Paul Jonna, a partner at LiMandri & Jonna and special counsel to the Thomas More Society, said that the standards under federal law and California law are very similar—meaning what happens in Groff will likely affect California law. He also issued this warning: “Make sure you know what books are on the shelf in your children’s care programs and schools. This is a clear-cut case of one of the largest child care employers in the country having anti-religious workplace policies that promote indoctrination of young children with the LGBT agenda.”
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