Import company accused of sexual, religious bias

April 20, 1992|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Staff Writer

Two former employees charge that the owners of a Woodlawn import company illegally imposed their unconventional spiritual beliefs on workers.

Teresa Keller and another woman, who asked not to be named for fear she could lose her present job, said they have lodged complaints of religious and sex discrimination against Triloka Trading Co. Inc. with the Baltimore County Human Relations Commission.

Triloka employees practice Agnihotra, which involves meditation and chanting of mantras before a copper pyramid pot in which believers burn dried cow dung, brown rice, and clarified butter known as ghee. Company literature traces Agnihotra to the Vedas -- ancient sources of revealed wisdom that became part of Hindu tradition. As part of the company's belief system, employees also shun women during their menstrual periods, Ms. Keller said in her complaint.

Triloka imports deity statues, incense, crystals and other items for sale primarily to stores that cater to customers practicing Eastern and New Age religions.

In a copy of her Jan. 14 complaint, Ms. Keller alleges that she was required at one point to take part in meditation in the office and on her own time. And she faced sex discrimination, the document said, because the company belief system forbade other employees from having any physical contact with a woman in her menstrual period. The complaint also alleges that company official John Brown made sexually suggestive remarks to female employees.

The other complaint, dated Aug. 21, 1991, is from a Woodlawn woman who alleges that she was pressured to join in religious ceremonies in the office and that Mr. Brown made sexually inappropriate remarks to her and other women.

When asked about these complaints with the Human Relations Commission, Mr. Brown, a partner and vice president of Triloka, denied any sexual intimidation and said all the charges were "bogus, not true."

Meditation is strictly voluntary, but encouraged as a way for employees to identify with the market for the company's line of products, he said. Avoiding contact with women having their periods was a practice female employees imposed on themselves, he said.

Officials at the Baltimore County Human Relations Commission, where the former employees say they complained against Triloka, said they could not acknowledge or comment on any case before reaching a decision on it. But Director Celestine Morgan said, generally, federal law requires employers to accommodate employees' religious beliefs.

Ms. Keller said she left the company last October because her life became difficult after refusing to continue practicing Agnihotra.

Work at Triloka would cease at 10 a.m., noon and 3 p.m., when workers were expected to meditate, she said. "If you don't, you don't fit in and they make your life hell."

In a practice related to the belief system, Ms. Keller said, women were considered untouchable during their menstrual periods and kept each other informed of their cycles. Employees would toss papers onto the desk rather than hand them to the women, seeking to avoid simultaneous contact with the paper. Furthermore, Ms. Keller said in her complaint, the women were required to use public bathroom facilities instead of those in the office.

Ms. Keller said she first worked for Mr. Brown as a secretary. She left the company after about a year and was enticed back to became a traveling sales representative, with the prospect of higher pay. But as a condition for taking the new job, she said, she had to live five days at an ashram located off South Rolling Road and begin to practice Agnihotra.

As she traveled for the company, first around Maryland, Washington and Virginia and then throughout the Northeast, Ms. Keller said she started talking to a customer about problems with her boss. The customer persuaded her to stand up to him.

She said she told Mr. Brown she no longer wanted to meditate. And "that was when my life literally was hell," she said. Arguments arose over her expenses on sales trips, Ms. Keller said. For example, she said Mr. Brown promised to pay for an airline ticket to a trade show in Las Vegas but later insisted the cost was hers.

But Mr. Brown said that all the sales representatives cover their own expenses. The company and Ms. Keller have filed separate suits against each other over the disputed expenses.

Ms. Keller, 25, lives in Carroll County and now works in real estate.

The other woman, who is 35, said that before taking a job as Mr. Brown's secretary, she was told about the meditation, but assumed it was just a quiet break from the stress of work.

Soon other employees were urging her to join them in meditation, she said, and to go on a vegetarian diet. At times, she would have to pour coffee for women during their periods, she said, "because they could not touch a communal coffee pot."

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