Ex-worker tells court FLDS forced him out

10th Circuit judges listen to arguments that claim bias

Deseret Morning News/August 16, 2007

The former employee of a business controlled by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says he was forced out of his 13-year job when he was told he had to adhere to FLDS doctrine in order to remain employed.

On Wednesday, a three-judge panel with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case of Shem Fischer, who claims he was the subject of religious discrimination when he was declared an "apostate" by then-FLDS leader Rulon Jeffs and forced out of his job when he protested the firing of another co-worker who was not an FLDS follower.

At issue before the 10th Circuit is whether Fischer quit on his own accord or was fired from his employment with Forestwood cabinet company, based in Hildale. The difference will determine whether Fischer can pursue a suit against the FLDS-owned company based on religious discrimination.

The case stems from a July 2000 religious edict issued by Warren Jeffs on behalf of his father Rulon, in which FLDS faithful were told to end all contact with "apostates," or those who had turned against the faith. According to court documents filed in the case, Fischer was told by Forestwood's president that "Forestwood is Uncle Rulon's company ... and everyone that works there needs to be 100 percent with Uncle Rulon."

Fischer said before and after his termination the company's management told him "faithfulness to the FLDS Church was a condition of employment at Forestwood," court documents state.

Fischer also had spoken out against the firing of a non-FLDS employee. Fischer himself had been booted from the faith in 1999 when he publicly expressed his disapproval of the FLDS Church's disciplinary treatment of his father.

Fischer claims he was fired, but Forestwood managers claim he quit.

A federal district court judge threw out Fischer's suit, finding there was not enough evidence to show he was fired. The judge also refused to allow taped phone conversations Fischer had with company officials, finding they were hearsay.

During arguments at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law, attorney James Stewart said a manager, in reaction to Fischer's protest over the firing of a non-FLDS employee, told him "do what you gotta do."

"I don't see how that's a firing," said appellate Judge Harris Hartz. "That's not telling him he has to leave."

Judge Michael McConnell pointed out that on Fischer's EEOC form he stated, "I was forced to quit."

Stewart said company and FLDS leaders made it abundantly clear that he was out of sorts and not welcome. Even after his client left, Stewart said, when Fischer asked for his job back, he was told outright that he would have to attend religious ceremonies.

Raymond Scott Berry, attorney for Forestwood, said Fischer's departure from his job cannot be seen as a firing just because he was "offended by discrimination" going on at the business.

Appellate judges questioned this stance. Judge Timothy Tymkovich said it appeared that Fischer was waiting for the other shoe to drop regarding his employment.

Berry said the FLDS edict was not considered policy at Forestwood and accused Fischer of "padding" his legal claims with FLDS sermons.

The judges pointed to taped recordings between Fischer and the company's owner in which Fischer was told he could not work at the company if he went against "Uncle Rulon."

The panel said they felt those tape recordings contained direct evidence of discrimination that could be heard by a jury, in opposition to the district court's ruling.

A ruling is expected from the 10th Circuit in the coming months.

Outside of court, Stewart said Fischer was the only person who fell victim to the FLDS edict who decided to take legal action for religious discrimination.

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