Dave Ramsey's 'righteous living': Inside the conflict over religion and sexuality at Ramsey Solutions

The campus of Ramsey Solutions headquarters at Berry Farms in Franklin, Tenn., Friday, Dec. 2, 2022.
The campus of Ramsey Solutions headquarters at Berry Farms in Franklin, Tenn., Friday, Dec. 2, 2022.

After rededicating his life to Christ following a yearlong struggle with addiction, the man saw Ramsey Solutions as a company where he could grow and live out his faith-inspired values.

When he started working there, “we were seeing the faithfulness of God … begin to restore our son’s life back to our family, back to Him and the values he was raised with,” the employee’s mother said in a letter to Dave Ramsey, Ramsey Solutions CEO and the driving force behind the Franklin-based personal finance company.

Everything changed for the employee when his bosses learned his wife was pregnant.

“The issue is that they just got married,” said one executive in an email to colleagues.

After some math, the executives concluded the employee and his wife conceived their child before getting married. Sexual intercourse outside marriage violates the company’s “righteous living” policy and warrants termination.

The executives were mostly on the same page, but there was still some uncertainty.

“The only wrinkle in this whole thing is he got her pregnant before he started here … My question would be, would that change anything?” Michael Finney, Ramsey Solutions chief operating officer, asked in an email.

No, they ultimately determined, so Finney met with the employee to bear the bad news.

“It was a tough one,” Finney reported back to members of the company's human resources committee in an email after firing the employee. “He felt like getting married and making the lifelong commitment would be the right thing to do in the end, though he said he understood that we have to be consistent.”

The episode is one of many examples of how Ramsey Solutions has implemented a series of policies and practices that encourages workplace conformity to a conservative evangelical Christian ethic.

The man's account, his mother's letter and company emails are included in public court filings as part of a federal lawsuit against Ramsey Solutions by former employee Caitlin O’Connor, who accused the company of discriminating against her when she was fired after company executives learned she was pregnant and unmarried. The man's name is redacted in the court documents.

In addition to O’Connor’s suit, the company is fighting another federal discrimination lawsuit and recently settled a third.

It’s all happening at a pivotal moment for businesses like Ramsey Solutions. For-profit companies are increasingly at the center of a national debate about how their owners can express their views − most notably conservative religious ones − and how those rights translate to their employees and the customers those businesses serve.

Conservative Christian business leaders have found the courts sympathetic to their religious liberty claims. The U.S. Supreme Court gave them key wins in cases like Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Cakeshop. And the high court heard oral arguments this month in a new case dealing with similar core issues, 303 Creative v. Elenis.

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“You’ve got this inevitable tension and conflict between a broadening engine of equality and the right to be free from discrimination," said Kent Greenfield, Boston College professor of constitutional law and corporate governance. "On the other side, there's this First Amendment theory that’s increasingly attentive to the rights of individuals and companies."

Greenfield and other experts say a company like Ramsey Solutions is entitled to its religious beliefs but urge the companies to apply their beliefs in a way that’s clear, consistent, and informed by sufficient training in antidiscrimination compliance.

But at Ramsey Solutions, some policies lack specificity, leading to confusion among executives who enforce those policies, according to a review of more than 1,500 pages of emails and depositions included in the O'Connor lawsuit.

For some, the revelations lead to legal concerns. Others have doubts about the company’s Christian witness.

In her letter to Ramsey, the mother whose son was fired for conceiving a child before his wedding said her son’s dismissal “has far more reaching consequences.”

“It cuts the legs right out from under someone who is putting their faith in people again (specifically those who preach Christian values) and Christian organizations,” she wrote.

Ramsey Solutions did not respond to a request for comment.

Proof through consistency

Unlike the decision to fire the employee who got married after conceiving a child, Ramsey Solutions leadership were less sure in their initial response to information that employee Chris Hogan was having an affair.

In that affair, “an oral sex act had begun but was not completed, according to him (Hogan),” Ramsey said in a deposition about Hogan, who was a high-profile personality for the company’s broadcast programs.

Right before, Hogan’s wife at the time, Melissa, approached company leadership with details about the affair. Melissa Hogan was met with disbelief and insults, directly and behind her back, according to depositions and emails between Ramsey and other company officials included in the O'Connor lawsuit.

Learning about the extramarital oral sex prompted the operating board, comprising members of the company’s senior leadership team, to meet. They decided oral sex outside marriage was not a terminable violation of the righteous living policy, even though sexual intercourse outside marriage is, according to depositions with Ramsey and three other executives.

“We were walking with a broken guy who was trying to heal,” Ramsey said in a deposition.

Chris Hogan resigned years later after Ramsey and other senior leadership were confronted with how Hogan had multiple affairs and routinely lied to company leadership about it.

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Ramsey and at least three other executives said in depositions that they don’t think oral sex outside marriage warrants termination and that the operating board made that decision in response to Hogan’s admission. In those depositions, they also were unable to cite scriptural references to explain their reasoning.

Though it isn’t necessary to recite Bible verses to back policy decisions, Greenfield said, there should be some standard.

“A corporation should have to prove its religious views have been long-standing and consistent,” Greenfield said in his book, “Corporations Are People Too (And They Should Act Like It).”

Greenfield would like to see courts require greater proof from a company that it holds a certain religious belief rather than presuming that sincerity.

“Sincerity of belief is a requirement of these claims,” Greenfield said in an interview.

Religious rights and ‘clear-cut rules’

There are more protections today for companies like Ramsey Solutions since the 2014 Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby, said Greenfield and Cheryl Wade, a law professor at St. John’s University.

The court’s decision created a new understanding of so-called corporate separateness, a legal framework that distinguishes a company’s investors and owners from the company. “The flesh and blood people who invest in businesses are separate from the business and should not be held personally accountable,” Wade said.

David and Barbara Green, the conservative evangelical owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores, sought the opposite in the Supreme Court case. They didn't want to cover certain contraception in their employee health plan because of their religious beliefs, despite federal requirements under the Affordable Care Act.

“Hobby Lobby was not a religious corporation, but the Greens wanted to claim it because of the beliefs of its shareholders,” Greenfield said in his book.

The court sided with them and thus paved the way for business leaders like Ramsey and his executive team, whose beliefs serve as the basis for the policies that apply to all Ramsey Solutions employees.

Greenfield and Wade are more wary of religious protections for companies, and both co-signed alongside other law professors a brief arguing against Hobby Lobby in the U.S. Supreme Court case.

Yet, as someone who’s generally more supportive of those protections, C. Scott Pryor, a law professor at Campbell University, a Christian school in North Carolina, has his concerns

“If Ramsey Solutions has these clear-cut rules on personal matters, you know, then OK, that can be part of the ethos of that firm,” Pryor said. “You have to spell it out.”

But the righteous living policy doesn’t explicitly describe which behaviors, such as intercourse versus oral sex, warrants termination, according to a copy of the policy description and depositions contained in the lawsuit.

Though such behavior was absent from the stated policy, the company also fired at least four employees after learning the employee wasn’t married and was living with or staying overnight with a partner, according to depositions and company emails included in the O'Connor lawsuit. In some of those cases, though not all, the employees acknowledged sleeping with their partner when supervisors confronted them.

“Nowadays, where we do not have a social consensus on what living properly is, you have to specify,” Pryor said. “If nothing else, this is a case study on how not to do it.”

When norms serve as policy

For another former Ramsey Solutions employee, supervisors didn’t even cite a policy when they fired her, she said.

The employee, unlike other examples mentioned in court filings in the O’Connor lawsuit, shared her story with The Tennessean in an interview. Three others, whom the former employee shared details with at the time of her dismissal, corroborated the former employee’s account in interviews with The Tennessean.

She agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because she fears retaliation for speaking out after signing a nondisclosure agreement, a copy of which she provided to The Tennessean.

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“At Ramsey (Solutions), they are a complementarian group,” the former female employee said in an interview, referring to a view common in conservative Christian spaces that men and women hold different roles.

Complementarianism has come up in the O’Connor lawsuit. Ramsey Solutions brought in an expert witness, Andrew Walker, a Southern Baptist seminary professor with ties to a major group that advocates for complementarianism, to speak to the issue.

As part of the O’Connor lawsuit, Walker spoke in support of complementarian views at Ramsey Solutions, according to court memos referencing a deposition with Walker. The transcript from that deposition remains under seal.

For the former female employee, there was pushback when she spoke her mind or didn’t wholly agree with supervisors’ suggestions.

“Someone else has control over your voice. It means you don’t have the right to speak truth unless that person is willing to accept it,” said the former employee about how she felt about the pushback.

A male department head and the company’s chief marketing officer, who is female, expressed concerns about the employee failing to meet expectations for how female employees in the rank-and-file should act.

Instead, the chief marketing officer told the employee to be more “traditional,” according to a journal entry the former employee wrote about a year after her dismissal.

That conversation with the chief marketing officer was part of a meeting when executives notified the employee of her dismissal. Other male supervisors were present but didn’t speak.

After that meeting, the company offered the employee a severance of several thousand dollars in exchange for signing an NDA, which she agreed to.

‘Implementation of the law’

Ramsey Solutions denies allegations of gender discrimination in O’Connor’s lawsuit and said it’s simply enforcing its policies. O’Connor’s lawyers argued the policies disproportionately affect women.

The company has fired three women, including O’Connor, for violating the righteous living policy and who were pregnant and unmarried at the time of their dismissal, according to a deposition with human resources director Armando Lopez.

The campus of Ramsey Solutions headquarters at Berry Farms based in Franklin, Tenn., Friday, Dec. 2, 2022.
The campus of Ramsey Solutions headquarters at Berry Farms based in Franklin, Tenn., Friday, Dec. 2, 2022.

Be it policies or norms and regardless of religious protections, companies still must comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, said Wade, the St. John's University professor and an expert in corporate governance, discrimination and religious issues. Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

But compliance doesn’t always happen, Wade said, “not because of the law itself but because of the lack of implementation of the law.”

Lopez is trained in Title VII compliance and oversees a team that includes a compliance officer. But the company’s human resources committee and its operating board have the final say on whether to fire an employee. There is no formalized training in Title VII compliance, Lopez said in a deposition.

In addition to the three federal discrimination lawsuits against the company, Lopez said in a deposition that he’s aware of “four or five” charges of employment discrimination filed against the company with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission since 2014.

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The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does not release discrimination charge files to the media.

“It’s hard to peer into what’s happening in these workplaces governed by corporations,” Wade said. “There’s a lot of regard held for the idea that these private sector actors should govern themselves.”

Preserving the ‘brand’

Self-governance is a practice in which Ramsey Solutions is particularly adept.

The NDAs are part of that. At least nine former Ramsey Solutions employees have signed NDAs after facing discipline for righteous living policy violations, according to depositions, company emails and copies of the NDAs.

In several righteous living policy related cases, company software caught employees viewing pornography online.

At least a couple of employees caught with pornography participated in a “recovery” counseling program instead of facing immediate dismissal for violating the righteous living policy, according to emails and Lopez in a deposition. For at least one of them, the counseling occurred through a Christian program at nearby Church of the City.

Church of the City is one of several churches in the area with ties to Ramsey Solutions. Local pastors have been guest speakers at Ramsey Solutions’ weekly all-staff devotional meetings, yet another opportunity for the company to emphasize certain Christian values.

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The righteous living policy, which is one of 14 total “core value” policies, is one layer in a larger system.

Despite criticism from some members of the public, Ramsey is steadfast. For him, these policies and practices serve a greater purpose in the marketplace.

“If an employee is doing something that is contrary to standard Christian beliefs, normative Christian beliefs, then the people that we deal with in the Christian community would feel that we are hypocrites,” Ramsey said in a deposition. “It would damage our brand.”

Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Reach him at ladams@tennessean.com or on Twitter @liamsadams.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dave Ramsey's 'righteous living': Religious debate at Ramsey Solutions