The Boston software management company that hosted a fund-raiser for Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio on Thursday faces trial on charges of religious discrimination and retaliation after a federal judge declined to dismiss claims brought by a former employee three years ago.
Alleging that she was fired for declining to pray at work, the former employee, Jing Zhang, sued Jenzabar Inc., its founder, Ling Chai, and two other charitable organizations that Jenzabar formed and funded. US District Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf denied summary judgment for either party on March 30. Barring a settlement, the case is expected to go to trial.
The defendants do not dispute firing her on religious grounds, but claim a religious exemption from antidiscrimination law. In a counterclaim, they also accuse Zhang of deception, saying she not only misled the organizations about her faith, but also misappropriated charitable funds for her personal benefit.
Chai, a Tiananmen Square activist who immigrated to the United States in 1990, is president and chief operating officer of Jenzabar. Her husband, Robert A. Maginn Jr., is Jenzabar’s chief executive officer and a former chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party who previously raised money for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and for US Senator Scott Brown.
Zhang, who is Catholic, was also born and raised in China and was imprisoned there for five years, according to her complaint. After immigrating to the United States, she established her own nonprofit, Women’s Rights in China, in Flushing, N.Y. After she met Chai, the two joined forces to work against China’s one-child policy and to promote the rights of women and children in China.
The program, called All Girls Allowed, was formed by the Jenzabar Foundation in 2010. Zhang worked for the organization from New York.
The judge noted in her decision that the defendants don’t seem to dispute that Zhang was fired for religious reasons. But the parties disagree over whether the charitable organization created by Jenzabar is a religious organization that qualifies for an exemption from antidiscrimination law.
New York City’s Human Rights Law makes it illegal to fire anyone because of their religious beliefs or to discriminate against an employee on that basis, but it provides an exemption for religious organizations. It also notes that nothing bars a religious organization from giving preference to people of the same religion to promote the principles for which it was established.
Zhang alleges that she was fired after being told that she was insufficiently religious, and that she was given an ultimatum: She could seek other employment or stay and agree to “seek the will of God in her life on a daily basis through study of God’s Word and through prayer, along with regular weekly corporate worship,” according to the judge’s ruling.
Chai’s deposition, portions of which were obtained by the Globe, showed that she acknowledged having made that one of the conditions of Zhang’s continued employment.
Chai, a onetime Buddhist, said in her deposition that she became a “Jesus follower” in 2009. Her faith informs not only her work, but also her legal arguments: The defendants’ motion says Chai was attempting to “combat huge evils,” including forced abortions in China, and that All Girls Allowed “could not achieve its objective of putting an end to these evils without God’s help.”
Before Chai’s deposition in July 2013, she asked lawyers for both sides to pray with her, said Daniel L. Alterman, another attorney representing Zhang.
“I’ve been practicing since 1969 and don’t ever remember anything like that ever happening before,” said Alterman.
Mercedes Colwin, an attorney representing the defendants who is also a Fox News Network analyst, could not be immediately reached. A lawyer from her firm, Mark A. Beckman, issued a statement in which the defendants denied discriminating against Zhang and called her allegations a distraction from her own failings on the job.
The judge’s ruling said Zhang was told to ‘seek the will of God in her life on a daily basis through study of God’s Word and through prayer, along with regular weekly corporate worship.’
Zhang took advantage of the organization’s trust and misappropriated funds, using them for her personal benefit, including buying a car, Beckman charged. “She diverted money intended to be used to benefit pregnant women and new mothers and their babies,” his statement said.
Beckman noted that the organization “has forgiven her through God’s love, but remains confident that when a jury hears all the evidence at trial, it and all defendants and counterclaim-plaintiffs will be vindicated and justice will prevail.”
Another attorney for Zhang, Kevin Mintzer, did not dispute her purchase of a car, but he said grant funding to her original nonprofit was not restricted.
He called the counterclaim an effort to “smear the reputation of a woman who has worked her entire life to promote human rights.”
“Every cent provided to Women’s Rights in China was used to further the mission of helping women and children in China, and there is not a single piece of evidence that suggests otherwise,” Mintzer said.
The defendants concede in their motion that All Girls Allowed was not organized as a religious organization by its bylaws or articles of incorporation. However, they argue that its work “at all times was motivated and guided by the teachings of Jesus Christ,” the judge noted in her decision.
But it was Jenzabar that provided Zhang employment agreements, paid her salary and benefits, and provided her a company handboook and policies prohibiting workplace discrimination, court documents show.
After Zhang was fired, she alleged, the Jenzabar foundation ended its financial support for Women’s Rights in China, the program she had launched before her involvement with All Girls Allowed; the defendants disputed that allegation.
The case is not clear-cut, the judge said in her decision. While city, state, and federal statutes all have discrimination exemptions for religious organizations, the statutes are structured differently and have been interpreted differently by various courts.Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.