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Miner files religious bias suit against Murray Energy

A longtime Price miner has sued Murray Energy Corp. and two of its subsidiaries, claiming that the company discriminated against him by denying his request to not work Saturdays, which is the Sabbath observed by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Willie Lee Ellington, 56, filed a religious discrimination lawsuit in federal court Friday seeking unspecified damages that would cover, among other things, lost wages.

Ellington has been a coal miner for 30 years and, for 19 years, worked at the West Ridge or the Tower Mine that was previously owned by Andalex Resources. That company for years permitted him to have Saturdays off for religious observance, which is a significant doctrinal requirement for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The lawsuit said Ellington was grateful for that scheduling arrangement, and in return, he would volunteer to work "undesirable graveyard shifts and holiday shifts and made it a point to work Sundays whenever asked, to facilitate accommodation of other workers' Sunday Sabbath observance."

The mine was acquired by Murray Energy Corp. and two subsidiaries, UtahAmerican Energy Inc. and West Ridge Resources Inc., in August 2006, according to the lawsuit.

Ellington contends he was told in December 2006 that his requests for Saturdays off would no longer be honored. Ellington is convinced that Robert E. Murray, owner of the firm, is hostile to Ellington's request for religious accommodation.

"Mr. Murray is reputed to have stated, 'We aren't running a church,"' the lawsuit states.

Ellington was told he had to switch shifts with other workers on a week-by-week basis, but this was difficult to do, and he did not have enough personal leave time to keep taking Saturdays off, the lawsuit said.

He also was switched to a job that was physically more demanding, and he believes that company officials knew it was going to be difficult for him to perform, the suit said.

He had been working for five years as a certified fire boss, which entails less physical hardship than other mining positions. In addition, Ellington previously had undergone surgery on his shoulder, and his doctor told him not to do such strenuous work.

As a result, Ellington believes he was essentially being set up to be forced off the job and felt he had no choice except to get work at another mine, according to the court document.

The lawsuit alleges that he suffered physical and mental damage when his job was changed, as well as when he was denied the scheduling accommodation he had requested for religious reasons.

"He's lost income by both being required to take unpaid leave to take his Sabbath when he was working for them, and the job he has now doesn't pay as much," said Kathryn Balmforth, an attorney for Ellington.

An attorney handling the case through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for Murray Energy Corp. was unavailable for comment Friday.