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God Goes to Work

June 23, 2005
Related Topics: Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Featured Article

There are no laws that say religious views can’t be shared in the workplace. However, there are plenty that prevent discrimination against a person because of his or her religious preferences. Discrimination lawsuits can be financially devastating, and even mere allegations of misconduct can give a company a bad name for years.

    Because of this, religion in the workplace has become a divisive issue, with so many legal loopholes, angles and pitfalls that most employers take the path of least resistance and try to keep religion out of the workplace altogether. Yet some employers feel so strongly about their faith that they are willing to risk potential legal action in order to share and promote it, leaving the mess of sorting through disputes to the human resources department.

    Ignorance of the law is never an excuse to evade liability, however, and getting the right information about what can happen if religious enthusiasm turns into religious discrimination can mean the difference between a company prospering unmolested, or crashing and burning in the courtroom. The following questions should help.

If we promote religious views at work, are we discriminating against people of different religions?
    The EEOC defines religious practices to include moral or ethical beliefs about what is right and wrong that are sincerely held and backed by the strength of traditional religious views.

    The EEOC states in its guidelines that an employer is required to reasonably accommodate the religious belief of an employee or prospective employee, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship.

    The U.S. Supreme Court has defined "undue hardship" as any costs greater than a very minor amount. Since that definition was provided by the court in the 1977 decision Trans World Airlines Inc. v. Hardison, et al. (1977), employers can and do refuse religious accommodation for the flimsiest of reasons.

    The EEOC, however, states that undue hardship only occurs if accommodating an employee’s religious practices requires more than ordinary administrative costs; diminishes efficiency in other jobs; infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits; impairs workplace safety; causes co-workers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work; or if the proposed accommodation conflicts with another law or regulation.

    "Ordinary administrative costs" in the EEOC’s definition seems to be much broader than the minor cost standard laid down by the Supreme Court. In different states, different courts may be following different guidelines, so you need to know which rule applies.

    Employers should make it clear that any religious activities associated with work are entirely voluntary. They should be done on the employee’s own time and should not be on work time.

    Simply put, there’s no hard and fast rule as to what is acceptable. If prayer groups are allowed, care must be taken to ensure that all employees are knowledgeable about their rights and responsibilities regarding these issues. This will provide companies their first line of defense.

    Employers should also note that mandatory or coercive prayer groups will not be tolerated by courts in any way. It is in the best interests of a company to eliminate even the appearance of such a situation before problems or conflict can occur.

Are evangelical companies--those companies that attempt to spread the word of particular religious beliefs as part of their corporate mission--discriminatory in that only adherents of those tenets would feel comfortable there, so therefore only adherents need apply?
    It isn’t de facto discrimination, but it may be self-selecting if a company isn’t careful. Some companies may want to avoid hiring people who don’t mirror their views. But they can’t. It’s illegal. There is an exception for religious-based businesses such as churches or religious-based charities.

    Even subtle job-related pressure on an employee can be viewed as harassment, and if that employee is fired, or if a more religious employee is promoted in his or her place, the employee will have a legitimate discrimination claim.

What do you say to an employee that wants to start a work-based prayer group?
    That’s a business-based decision. But beware: If you open the door to one group, you may be required to open the door to any other groups that want to do the same thing. The workday could be brought to a grinding halt by competing prayer groups trying to recruit members for their ranks.

    Again, companies need to make sure that proper education is available to ensure all employees’ rights are protected. An employee who brings up the issue too often should be cautioned that this can be harassing behavior, and can be a very divisive issue in the workplace. There aren’t many issues more volatile than religion, and if the purpose of a business is to build an atmosphere of teamwork, such behavior can quickly undermine it with unnecessary grief.

    What happens when a supervisor asks about participating in a workplace prayer group? Isn’t there some implied pressure to join, or at least some fear of not fitting in and missing the "fast track"?

    Again, a tricky issue. This is particularly thorny because a supervisor is involved, implicating the company and exerting at least apparent pressure for a subordinate to comply with the supervisor’s requests.

    As a second line of defense, a company needs a good open-door policy for complaints and good training for all employees on that policy. That way, any friction that arises can hopefully be resolved quickly without disrupting the company or producing a lawsuit. Failure of a company to find out about these problems can be much more damaging than the problems themselves.

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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