An increasing number of employees are claiming religious discrimination. In the past, the typical complaint would have been that a person was fired or disciplined or denied a promotion because of practicing a certain faith. But today, claims of religious discrimination tend to be much more subtle and more challenging.
An employee might claim, for example, that a supervisor is seeking to impose his or her own religious beliefs on the employee by pressuring the employee to attend prayer sessions or Bible study meetings at work. Or an employee may claim being unfairly deprived of the right to pray at work or to use a company meeting room to discuss the Koran with other employees. Still another employee may claim that wearing a “Stop Abortion” badge with a color photo of a fetus is an exercise of religious rights; other employees may find the badge disturbing, offensive, and a violation of their own rights. Complicating matters is the fact that religion, unlike other protected characteristics, is not inherent: It is based on a belief system, which can change or grow over time, and which varies from person to person.
Unfortunately, the law in this delicate area is unclear. As always, tolerance and common sense are your best guides. If employees complain to you that a coworker is badgering them with religious hectoring, you have a right— if not a duty— to intervene, although you must, of course, use the utmost tact and sensitivity. The law protects your right to discuss your own religious beliefs with an employee, if you’re so inclined, but you can’t persist to the point that the employee feels you’re being hostile, intimidating, or offensive. So, if an employee objects to your discussion of religious subjects or you even get an inkling that your religious advances are unwelcome, back off.
Otherwise, you may find yourself embroiled in a lawsuit or administrative proceeding. While you may feel that the best way to resolve these knotty problems is to simply banish religion from the workplace, that’s generally not a viable alternative. You’re legally required to make a reasonable accommodation to the religious needs of employees. You don’t, however, need to do anything that would cost more than a minimum amount or that would cause more than minimal inconvenience. Allowing workers to use an empty office for voluntary group prayer at lunchtime might be a reasonable accommodation. Letting workers take a limited amount of time off work to attend religious observances might also be a reasonable accommodation. However , it might be better to simply give all employees a few days of personal leave time each year so that religious workers aren’t viewed as receiving special privileges.
Recognizing that the issue of religious discrimination is a complicated one for employers, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently released an updated compliance manual that explains how legal protections should be interpreted and applied in cases involving religion. For more information, visit the EEOC’s website at www.eeoc.gov/ policy/ docs/ religion.html .