Ling Chai, a leader of China’s 1989 prodemocracy movement and now a controversial business leader in Boston, is being sued for religious discrimination for allegedly firing an employee who declined to pray at work.
Chai, the wife of Massachusetts Republican Party chairman Robert A. Maginn Jr., is the founder of the Boston-based education software firm Jenzabar Inc. and related charitable organizations Jenzabar Foundation and All Girls Allowed, which opposes China’s One-Child Policy.
All three organizations, along with Chai, are named in the federal lawsuit filed in the Eastern District of New York last month.
The employee, Jing Zhang, is a Chinese activist who once spent five years in a Chinese prison for promoting freedom and democracy, according to the suit. In the United States, Zhang had already established her own nonprofit, Women’s Rights in China, in Flushing, N.Y., when she joined forces with Chai to develop programs to prevent forced abortions in China. Then, she alleges, Chai fired her for being insufficiently religious and for declining to engage in “weekly corporate worship.”
Attached to the lawsuit is a March e-mail that purportedly issued Zhang an ultimatum: She could either “seek the will of God in her life on a daily basis through study of God’s word and through prayer” or start looking for a new job.
That document asked Zhang to agree to statements, including, “I believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and apart from him nobody can receive eternal life and enter the kingdom of God.”
If she disagreed, the document said, Zhang would undergo a one-year mediation period, during which she would continue to be paid but would lose funding for her New York office, have to train her successor, surrender all her contacts in China, and agree not to slander Chai.
“When she demurred, she was fired,” said Daniel L. Alterman, one of Zhang’s attorneys.
“Whatever the problems that exist in China, in America, we have something called the First Amendment that respects freedom of religion,” he said. “And an employer can’t force an employee to practice the same religion that they practice.”
But in a statement from All Girls Allowed, spokeswoman Kat Lewis defended the right of the charitable group to emphasize faith and said Zhang was aware of the “requirements to succeed” when she took the job in 2010.
“As a ministry and faith-based organization, the law makes allowances for such an infusion of faith into the work of All Girls Allowed,” Lewis said in the statement.
Calling the lawsuit a “smear campaign” and “meritless,” the organization’s statement also said Zhang was fired for performance issues, including her “refusal to abide by the faith-based conditions of her employment that she knew and accepted when she began working with All Girls Allowed.”
State and federal law prohibit discrimination based on religion, but allow an exemption for religious organizations to give hiring preference to people of the same faith, noted Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman. What constitutes a religious organization, and a ministerial job within it, is subject to a judge’s discretion.
“You can discriminate in hiring and firing employees whose roles are at the religious core of your activity,” he said, noting those would typically include “the priest or imam, not the janitor.”
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the exception applies to institutions that are “primarily religious” based on their articles of incorporation, day-to-day operations, nonprofit status, and affiliation with a church.
Kevin Mintzer, another attorney for Zhang, said All Girls Allowed’s articles of incorporation show it was formed as a human rights organization, not a religious group.
He said that Zhang, a Catholic, never agreed to practice her faith in the same manner as her boss, who is an evangelical Christian.
“She’s not an irreligious person. She does believe,” Mintzer said of Zhang. “But she had no interest in entanglement with work and having requirements of praying on the job and worshiping a certain way. It was completely thrust upon her.”
Whether or not All Girls Allowed might qualify for a religious exemption, he said, Zhang was technically not even an employee of that organization. “She was a Jenzabar Inc. employee,” Mintzer said. “They gave that to her in a contract two times. Every pay stub she ever got was from Jenzabar.”
Jenzabar, which provides software and related services to colleges, has in recent years been targeted in unrelated lawsuits that resulted in quiet settlements.
The company has also claimed a leading role in fund-raising for Republican candidates since its chief executive, Maginn, was elected chairman of the state Republican party in November. Jenzabar also gave $250,000 to the super-PAC supporting presidential candidate Mitt Romney, whose former Belmont home Maginn and Chai now occupy.
Chai has also been a target of controversy in the past, suing documentary filmmakers whose film on the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989 portrayed her in a controversial light.
According to the latest suit, Chai met Zhang when she served as Zhang’s translator during a congressional hearing on China’s one-child policy in 2009. Chai hired her as her director of China and Overseas Communities in May 2010 and Jenzabar began supporting Zhang’s existing nonprofit in 2007, according to the suit.
But later, Chai began asking Zhang to set aside time in the office for prayer, to attend retreats, and to participate in Bible study on two-hour daily conference calls from her New York office at times that often conflicted with Zhang’s calls to China, according to the suit.
Early this year, the suit says, Zhang was ordered to change the agency’s programs to require that all of their field workers in China and any recipients of their aid were Christians.
In February, Chai told her that she needed to begin practicing her religion more devoutly if she wanted to continue working there.
Lewis said in a statement that Chai “became a follower of Jesus” on Dec. 4, 2009.
While Chai and All Girls Allowed are grieved that Zhang has pursued a lawsuit, Lewis said, “They have forgiven Ms. Zhang and her attorneys and have been praying for God to bless them.”
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieebbert.