Bias alleged in firm's forced work meditation Ex-employees cite chants at dried dung fire.

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 a Woodlawn woman, who asked not to be named for fear she could lose her present job, say they have lodged separate complaints of religious and sexual 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 says 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 meditate in the office and do it on her own time. She says she faced sex discrimination because the company belief system forbids 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.

In the other complaint, dated last Aug. 21, the Woodlawn woman says she was pressured to join in religious ceremonies in the office and 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, denies any sexual intimidation and says all the charges are "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 says. Avoiding contact with women having their periods is a practice female employees impose on themselves, he says.

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

Ms. Keller says 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 says. "If you don't, you don't fit in and they make your life hell."

Ms. Keller says 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 says, she had to live five days at an ashram retreat off South Rolling Road and begin to practice Agnihotra.

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

But Mr. Brown says 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, says 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 and to go on a vegetarian diet, she says. At times, she would have to pour coffee for women during their periods, she says, "because they could not touch a communal coffee pot."

When she suffered from migraine headaches and bronchitis, she says, co-workers advised her to join them at the fire and to eat the ash for its healing powers. She never took the advice, never meditated, and felt like an outsider. The woman says she was fired after 10 months following a dispute with Mr. Brown over when she could take vacation.

Mr. Brown says the two women are simply "angry, vindictive and doing anything they can to hurt."

Agnihotra is "an integral part of our business," Mr. Brown says, and job applicants are made aware of that from the start. But "no one is required to do anything other than their job," he says.

Triloka employs nine people in the office and nine others as salespeople, he says. "We service the metaphysical market."

Agnihotra is practiced at sunrise when, according to Agnihotra literature, "electricities, energies [and] ethers" are attracted to the fire pot, and at sunset when those energies are thrust out of it. Believers at Triloka also burn the offering while meditating three more times during the day, in a small room within the office complex. "It seems to give clarity to the mind," Mr. Brown says.

Recently, the building's landlord required the company to stop this practice in the office, he says.

Mr. Brown insists that Agnihotra is not a religion, but a scientific practice that cleanses the Earth's atmosphere.

"You don't even have to believe in a god to do Agnihotra," he says.

But when the county Fire Department made an inspection last August, the inspector noted in the report that Mr. Brown complained vigorously that the inspection abridged his religious freedom. The fire inspector found no violation since the ritual was practiced in a special room set aside for it.

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