Urban League accused of bias

Racial, religious discrimination alleged

Hit with a $100,000 verdict in a discrimination lawsuit decided last week, the Springfield Urban League faces a second lawsuit from a former Head Start employee who says that she was the victim of racial and religious discrimination.

Rhonda King, a former teacher and parent advocate at the Urban League’s Head Start program in Jacksonville, alleges that Bible study and prayer was common in the workplace and was both tolerated and encouraged by Ann Burries, a former supervisor. Burries is married to the pastor of House of Worship Church of God, a Pentecostal church in Jacksonville.

King, who is agnostic and white, also says that black employees received preferential treatment from Burries, who worked for Head Start for more than 20 years before leaving the agency in 2011. King claims that she is a victim of reverse discrimination and that she was subjected to a hostile work environment because she was not a member of Burries’ church.

The allegations are similar to those of Jamie Schnitker, a former Head Start teacher who last week was awarded $100,000 by a Sangamon County jury. Like King, Schnitker says that black Head Start employees in Jacksonville received preferential treatment and that Burries allowed religious activity in the workplace (“White Jobs Matter,” posted online, July 28, 2015). Schnitker was terminated at the same time as King.

The Urban League in court documents denies doing anything wrong. But the Illinois Department of Human Rights determined that there is “substantial evidence” that King’s accusations are true.

“During working hours, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, employees with Burries would engage in discussion of religious issues and this included having Bibles out,” a state human rights investigator wrote in the “Uncontested Facts” portion of her 2011 report. “Prayers often occurred in the office during working hours. … Burries prayed over complainant at work, during work hours, on more than one occasion.”

King says that black employees with less seniority and less education kept their jobs while she was terminated after the entire staff was laid off, then largely recalled, due to uncertainties about program funding in 2010. The Urban League  says that King was fired because she violated a policy against personal use of computers, but Burries gave her permission for such use, the state human rights investigator wrote in her 2011 report. Furthermore, the investigator found, King’s use of computers for matters unrelated to work occurred at times consistent with breaks and lunch hours.

King says that she told Burries that a black employee was using a computer for personal matters during the work day while children were present, but nothing was done. She also says that employees used Urban League equipment, including computers, to produce fliers and bulletins for church activities and that a less-qualified employee who wasn’t fired had worked on a grant application for Burries’ church at Urban League offices on work time.

During a deposition in the lawsuit, Burries testified that seven members of her church, including her oldest son, worked for the Urban League. King told the state investigator that employees had used an Urban League laminator to laminate pictures and other items for Burries’ church.  Burries defended use of the laminator during the state investigation.

“Burries states that the laminator use was for the benefit of Head Start kids, so it was allowable to use the equipment since it would benefit the children in the program who attended the church,” the state human rights investigator wrote in her report.

Burries, accompanied by her husband, once went to King’s home during a weekend. King told a state investigator that Burries, who hadn’t been invited, spoke with her about heaven and the need to go to church. She said that she subsequently attended services at Burries’ church once because she thought it would help her succeed at work, but she never went again. Burries, however, told the investigator that King, who had been “soul searching,” had invited her to her home. She denied inviting King to attend the church where her husband served as pastor.

When her mother died, King told Burries that she needed time off work, according to the state report. Burries responded by hugging her in a “full embrace” and saying a prayer that lasted for five minutes, King told the state investigator.

“Complainant states that she didn’t refuse the prayer because she wanted to keep her job, but that she was uncomfortable,” the investigator wrote in her report.

Burries said that King asked for prayers.

“Burries states that complainant would come to her and say ‘Ms. Ann, I know you can get prayers through,’” the state investigator wrote in her report. “Burries states that she would tell complainant ‘Yes, I can’ and then held hands and prayed for complainant. Burries states that she did hug complainant on several occasions, always requested by complainant.”

Lillie Jasper, chief operations officer for the Urban League, declined comment on King’s lawsuit. However, she said that Schnitker, the former teacher who was awarded $100,000 by a jury last week, had asked for prayers during times of personal stress.

“She actually requested prayer regarding her daughter and her daughter’s pregnancy and in regard to divorce,” Jasper said. “She requested prayer from Ann Burries with regard to those particular issues.”

Schnitker had also complained about prayer meetings and Bible study at work. Jasper said prayers didn’t occur in the classroom.

“It was done during breaks,” Jasper said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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