NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A former employee of Weigh Down Workshop has filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against Gwen Shamblin, the company’s founder, claiming she was fired because she would not attend a church founded by Shamblin and her husband, David.
Gary Blackburn, an attorney from the Nashville-based firm of Blackburn and McCune filed the suit in Davidson County Chancery Court on behalf of Tonya Cardente, who worked as a staff counselor until her June 13th firing.
“Basically the owner of Weigh Down Workshop established her own church and imposed religious tests upon the people who worked there,” Blackburn told Baptist Press. “That’s discrimination based upon religious preference and you don’t see these kinds of cases very often.”
Blackburn said he may be representing two other former employees who allege they lost their jobs because of similar claims. A damage amount has not been set.
Officials at Weigh Down Workshop did not return repeated calls from Baptist Press.
Cardente maintains she was fired for praying on the job. “I used my lunch hour to pray and I was told by Gwen (Shamblin) that she pays people good money to pray and she didn’t need my prayers and it wasn’t my place to decide what to pray for,” Cardente told Baptist Press.
“She said some people are sacrificed for the benefit of others,” she recalled. “That’s what she said when I was fired.”
Cardente moved from California one year ago after she was recruited to work at Weigh Down’s Nashville office. “I was courted for about a year,” she said. “We prayed about it and decided it would be a good opportunity for us.”
After she moved to Nashville, Cardente said she was increasingly pressured to join Shamblin’s church, the Remnant Fellowship. “Once again, we prayed about it and visited the church for about two months,” she said. “That’s when we started hearing things that we knew weren’t doctrinally sound.”
“Gwen would tell us that grace isn’t the message of God and that she is a prophet,” Cardente said. “She said the anti-Christ resides within each of us.”
After they left Shamblin’s church, Cardente said she lost her job. And she wasn’t the only one.
At least 35 employees of Weigh Down Workshop have been pressured to quit their jobs and a Southern Baptist employee contends she was fired because they would not attend Shamblin’s church.
Anita Pillow, a member of Park Avenue Baptist Church and a single mom, told Baptist Press she was heartbroken after she lost the position she had held for almost three years but became distraught when Shamblin asked her to lie about her dismissal.
“I was told that because the direction the company was moving towards, my position was being replaced by someone who attended her Remnant Fellowship church,” said Pillow, a former outreach counselor at Weigh Down. “She thanked me for my hard work but said my services were no longer needed. Because I was not a member of the Remnant Fellowship, I was being replaced.”
“In the middle of being fired, Gwen sent me a letter saying that the Human Resources people made a mistake and I wasn’t supposed to be fired, only allowed to resign,” Pillow said. “She asked me to sign this letter saying that I resigned and was never fired. Well, I didn’t sign it because it was not the truth. She called me personally and that’s just what I told her. They told me that I wouldn’t get any money if I didn’t sign those papers.”
Pillow also kept copies of all the letters, including her termination notice and sent them to a Nashville attorney. She is seeking severance pay and attorney’s fees.
Shamblin, who has ties to the Church of Christ, started a new church in Nashville with her husband and several other couples in January 1999. The church, which meets in a warehouse, has about 80 members, mostly Weigh Down Workshop employees.
Since 1992, Shamblin has taken her business from a garage start-up to a multi-million-dollar Nashville corporation. Her 1997 book, The Weigh Down Diet, has sold more than 1 million copies. There are 30,000 Weigh Down Workshop locations meeting weekly around the world, including in thousands of evangelical churches.
In recent weeks, she has come under fire for questionable theological views. The controversy intensified after Shamblin posted a weekly e-mail communiqué to her followers on Aug. 10. “As a ministry, we believe in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit,” Shamblin wrote. ‘However, the Bible does not use the word ‘trinity’ and our feeling is that the word ‘trinity’ implies equality in leadership or shared Lordship. It is clear that the scriptures teach that Jesus is the Son of God and that God sends the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not send God anywhere. God is clearly the Head.”
Last month, Thomas Nelson cancelled publication of Shamblin’s new book, Out of Egypt, and LifeWay Christian Stores pulled her products off their shelves.