The born-again Christian owners of an Arizona manufacturing company may not force their employees to attend mandatory prayer services at work, a divided federal appeals court has ruled.

The Townley Engineering & Manufacturing Co. of Eloy, Ariz., may conduct religious services at the mining equipment firm but may not compel employees to attend, according to a ruling Monday by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.The company, founded in 1963 by Jake and Helen Townley in Florida, was to be a "Christian, faith-operated business," according to the couple.

The constitutional rights of the Townleys to the free exercise of religion does not extend to compelling an employee to attend the service, even if he wore ear plugs, slept or read a book, Judge Joseph Sneed wrote in the 2-1 decision.

In a stinging dissent, Judge John Noonan, author of several books on religion and the law, accused the majority of making a theological judgment. He added that corporations enjoy a First Amendment right to free exercise of religion, including mandatory religious service.

He argued that the atheist employee who objected to the service was not coerced because he was told he could wear ear plugs, sleep or read a book during the service.

The Townley's Florida plant, not part of the suit, has weekly devotional services for a half hour that may include a prayer, singing, testimony and scripture reading, according to the court.