Religion in the Workplace

This newspaper features a “Faith” section every week. There are at least five Christian channels on our cable television. The Amarillo yellow pages directory contains at least 20 pages of church listings. Religion is alive and well in the Panhandle of Texas.

But is it appropriate to bring religion into your workplace? For many people, it is as natural as breathing to talk about, think about and pray about their faith and their struggles while at work as well as elsewhere.

But as a business owner or manager, you have to be very careful and knowledgeable about how to handle your employees’ and your own religious beliefs. While about 75% of Americans professed to be Christians in 2000, there are another 13% who said they are secular or nonreligious, and the rest practiced Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, agnosticism, atheism, Hinduism, Wiccan, etc.

Even if an employee professes to be a Christian, he or she could be involved in any one of the 38,000 Christian denominations worldwide that Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary identified in 2006. Many of these denominations have very different practices and traditions from your church. Just assuming that all of your employees believe the way that you believe is naïve and could be legally costly.

This country was founded on religious diversity and the specific employment laws that regulate religion in the workplace honor that tradition.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that an employer cannot discriminate against an employee on the basis of the employee’s religion. Like gender discrimination, this has been expanded to also mean that an employee may not be harassed on the job for his or her religious beliefs.

An employer must also make reasonable accommodation to the religious practices of employees, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This can mean that an employer may have to allow reasonable time off for religious observances, be flexible in dress codes, and be tolerant of certain religious practices at work.

How have the courts applied these rules? One federal appeals court reviewed a case in which an employee asked his boss at Home Depot for Sundays off, not only to attend his worship services but also because of an overall objection to working on the Sabbath Day. Home Depot offered to let him work only on Sunday afternoons or evenings so that he could attend worship, but didn’t address accommodating his religious objection to working at all on Sundays. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that Home Depot’s accommodation was not sufficient and remanded the case for trial.

Another employee claimed that she was being harassed when a coworker experienced a religious conversion and began to frequently talk about her beliefs and decorated her cubicle with religious messages and sayings. The employer forbade the religious employee from discussing her beliefs with the complaining coworker. The company did not require the religious employee to take down her religious paraphernalia from her cubicle, but did allow the complaining employee to move her desk. The federal appeals court that heard the religious harassment claim threw it out, finding that the employer had responded appropriately by finding a balance between the religious employee and the offended coworker.

So what can you as employer do when faced with religion in your workplace? If a request really involves an undue hardship, you may not have to accommodate it under Title VII, but don’t make “no” your first response. Instead, consider these ideas:

1. While it is important that you find out if your employees have religious issues affecting their jobs, don’t try to engage them in a theological debate or reform their religious views. Assume that their beliefs are genuine and that they have a right to them without pressure from their boss to change. One police chief repeatedly talked about salvation and made inquiries into a dispatcher’s personal life. He told her she led a sinful life and opined that suicide would be preferable to her present life. In deciding the dispatcher’s lawsuit, the court found that she had been harassed by a hostile religious environment.

2. Be prepared to try to accommodate your employees’ religious beliefs when they request reasonable time off, ask for an exception to the dress code, request kosher meals in the company cafeteria, form an on-site Bible Study group, or decorate their cubicles with religious paraphernalia As long as it does not create an undue hardship for the company (not merely an inconvenience or a raised eyebrow), you should try to find an answer that satisfies the religious needs of your employees

3. Consider whether your company is promoting one religion over another. For example, do you have a company Christmas party and close on Christian holidays, and then refuse to allow a Jewish employee time off to pray and fast on Yom Kippur? Do you advertise your business in the Christian business directory and then refuse to hire a Muslim applicant? These actions could easily drag you into a long, expensive discrimination battle.

4. Don’t worry about religious discrimination claims if you work for a “religious corporation, association, educational institution or society”. Obviously a Baptist church or school can refuse to hire a Muslim to minister or teach. Also, don’t fret about these issues if you have less than 15 employees in your company, because no Texas or federal discrimination laws apply to your workplace.

5. Many employees have emotional needs that could be addressed by a nondenominational prayer room (particularly for Muslims who must pray five times a day), a chaplain (who acts as a counselor and encourager, not an evangelist), floating holidays (which can accommodate many different religious observances), and other policies that are sensitive to the emotional and spiritual struggles of every employee but neutral as to any one religion.

6. As with all employment decisions, when faced with a religious dilemma, slow down, listen to what your employee is really saying, avoid mocking her concerns or belief system and analyze whether any undue hardship will really result from accommodating her. You should also involve your employment lawyer in these decisions.

Finally, if your own religious beliefs are important to you as a business owner or manager, instead of preaching your beliefs in the workplace, live them out. There is nothing more convincing than a person who, without ever uttering a word, demonstrates by his actions that he has found the spiritual truth. Your business ethics, your charitable giving, your compassion for your employees and your faithful living will all speak louder than words in the workplace.

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