The federal government is suing the operators of North Memorial Medical Center, accusing it of retaliating against a prospective new-hire nurse because she sought to be off work during her Christian faith's sabbath.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court in Minneapolis against North Memorial Health Care System of Robbinsdale, offered Emily Sure-Ondara a position as a registered nurse in November 2013. Sure-Ondara, a Seventh-Day Adventist, then requested a schedule allowing her to not work the sabbath, from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday.

North Memorial refused and rescinded the written job offer eight days later, the agency contends. Even though Sure-Ondara relented and said she would go ahead and accept the job without the faith-related accommodation, North Memorial declined to hire her anyway, the agency and the nurse both allege.

"I never got a first day on the job," said Sure-Ondara, 37, of Plymouth, who attends religious services on Friday evenings and most of the day Saturday. "Where I am now, I am accommodated."

Sure-Ondara said she moved on and applied to Fairview Health Services, where she is permitted to observe her sabbath while working as a home care nurse.

Fairview spokeswoman Jennifer Amundson said the health provider "evaluates requests for schedule accommodations on a case-by-case basis. ... Employees have many important reasons to request schedule accommodations, and we do our best help, as long as quality of care and service are not affected."

Under federal law, "the employer can't retaliate" because an applicant asked for a religious accommodation, "and that's what this litigation is about," said Jessica Palmer-Denig, the EEOC attorney handling the case on Sure-Ondara's behalf.

"We are not challenging the denial of the accommodation," Jessica Palmer-Denig said. "The issue is that after [the job offer was pulled], she repeatedly said I will work without [the accommodation] — she did not want to lose this job — and they said no."

Calls and e-mail messages were left Thursday with North Memorial's attorney on the case. North Memorial spokeswoman Lesa Bader, in a written statement, said: "While we do not comment on active legal complaints, which we have yet to receive from the EEOC, North Memorial is committed to equal employment opportunity for all applicants consistent with existing laws, rules and regulations."

EEOC: Settlement rebuffed

Palmer-Denig said North Memorial told her agency that it rejected Sure-Ondara's sabbath observance request because "they couldn't do it under the union contact." The Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) counts about 1,000 members employed by North Memorial, which has more than 1,400 registered nurses throughout its system.

Barb Brady, a spokeswoman for the MNA, said, "There is nothing in the contract that requires or prevents the employer and the union from considering a request for accommodation."

Federal law does require employers to not discriminate against applicants or current employees based on religion and other classifications. However, accommodations such as what Sure-Ondara had sought must not present "too much of a burden" for the employer, Palmer-Denig said, explaining why the EEOC is suing based on the retaliation and not the actual denial of the scheduling request.

The EEOC attempted to settle the dispute with North Memorial through what is called conciliation, but the health service declined, the agency said.

The suit seeks back pay for Sure-Ondara, compensation for job-search expenses and compensation for "emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, loss of enjoyment of life, and humiliation," the suit read.

The EEOC also wants North Memorial to cease the retaliatory actions the agency is alleging and institute and carry out policies that ensure equal employment opportunities for job seekers and its workers.

Along with the medical center, North Memorial Health Care System operates Maple Grove Hospital, Minnetonka Medical Center and a host of clinics in the Twin Cities area.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482