Conflicts over religious expression in the workplace tend to erupt over three main issues: proselytizing, grooming practices and work scheduling. Many laws prohibit religious-based employment discrimination, notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A section of the landmark law known as Title VII requires employers to “reasonably accommodate” their employees' religious beliefs and practices in the workplace unless doing so would cause “undue hardship” on the conduct of business.
Here are examples of cases arising from religious-discrimination complaints filed in civil courts or with federal or state Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offices:
Wilson v. U.S. West Communications (1995) — Christine L. Wilson, a devout Catholic, vowed to wear a graphic anti-abortion button until the practice was made illegal. Some of Wilson's co-workers at U.S. West Communications in Omaha, Neb., were offended by the button, which depicted an aborted fetus. U.S. West told Wilson she could wear the button in her own cubicle but had to cover it up elsewhere around the office. After Wilson was fired for rejecting the company's offer, she sued, arguing U.S. West had failed to adequately accommodate her religious views. U.S. West maintained that Wilson had spawned a disruptive work environment, causing productivity to drop. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with U.S. West, ruling that federal law does not require an employer to “allow an employee to impose his religious views on others.”
Banks v. Service America Corp. (1996) — Two evangelical Christian cafeteria workers at a General Motors plant in Kansas regularly made comments such as “God bless you” and “Praise the Lord” to customers in their serving line. GM ordered them to stop after several people complained, but the workers refused to stop and were fired. They then sued GM, alleging religious discrimination.
The company justified its actions on economic grounds, saying it feared that customers would start bringing sack lunches and “boycott” the cafeteria. A district court agreed with the company's argument that the two workers' comments were not always well received. When the workers pointed out that less than .02 percent of their serving-line customers had actually complained, the court ruled the company had failed to prove that it had suffered real economic harm. The court reasoned that “because the fast-food service encounter . . . is a fleeting and spontaneous one,” the company could not establish that it would suffer undue hardship if it allowed the religious comments to continue.
Tucker v. State of California Department of Education (1996) — Monte Tucker began working as a computer analyst at the California State Department of Education in 1977. In 1988, Tucker began attaching the acronym “SOTLJC” after his name on all the work he did, telling anyone who asked that the letters stood for “Servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The department ordered Tucker to stop and established a policy banning all employees from circulating religious statements and acronyms on official department work. The department also prohibited all employees from engaging in any “religious advocacy, either written or oral, during the work hours or in the workplace.”
Tucker sued, claiming the directives violated his right of free speech. A District Court ruled for the education department, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, striking down all of the department's workplace rules except for the prohibition against the acronym on official documents. The court acknowledged that the department had a valid interest in banning the posting of religious symbols in the public portions of the building, so as not to give the impression that the state was endorsing a particular religion. But it ruled that “banning the posting of all religious materials and information in all areas of the office building except in employees' private cubicles simply goes too far.”
EEOC v. Townley Engineering and Manufacturing Co. (1988) — Jake and Helen Townley made a covenant with God to run their Florida-based mining-supply company as a “Christian, faith-operated business.” They expressed their faith in a variety of ways, including requiring employees to attend weekly, non-denominational devotional services. When employee Louis Pelvas sought to be excused because he was an atheist, the Townleys said he could sleep or read the newspaper during the services — but that he had to attend.
Instead, Pelvas quit and filed a religious-discrimination lawsuit. The Townleys argued that Pelvas had no grounds to sue because he had agreed to attend the services when he was hired. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected their argument, ruling that an “an employee does not cease to be discriminated against because he temporarily gives up his religious practice and submits to the employment policy.” The court also found that excusing Pelvas from the devotionals would not have caused the Townleys' business “undue hardship.”
EEOC v. Sambo's of Georgia (1981) — Major Singh, a Sikh, was told during his interview for a restaurant-manager position that Sambo's grooming policy prohibited facial hair, except for neatly trimmed mustaches. When Singh said his faith prohibited him from shaving or cutting his hair, Sambo's told him he would not be hired.
Singh filed a religious-discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Sambo's argued that the public preferred clean-shaven employees at restaurants because of concerns about sanitary conditions and that the no-beard policy was critical to keeping its customer base. Sambo's also noted that under Georgia health laws, restaurants could be fined or shut down if their employees had “excessive” facial hair.
A Georgia district court sided with Sambo's, ruling not only that the company's public image would have been harmed if it had been forced to hire Singh but also that Sambo's would have risked violating the state's restaurant-sanitation regulations.
Prabhjot Singh Kohli v. Domino's Pizza (1996) — Another Sikh, Prabhjot Singh Kohli, had a better outcome when he applied for a restaurant-manager position at a Domino's Pizza outlet in Maryland. Domino's initially refused to hire Kohli, citing its strict grooming code. Kohli offered to wear a hair net over his beard, but Domino's still refused to hire him. Kohli sued, arguing that the company's refusal violated Maryland laws against religious discrimination. A state panel agreed and ordered Domino's to offer Kohli a position. The panel also ordered Domino's to revise its no-beard policy — which the company has now dropped.
Spitzer v. Sears, Roebuck and Co. (2000) — Kalman Katz, an Orthodox Jew, applied for a job repairing dishwashers, dryers and other appliances at a Sears facility in Brooklyn, N.Y. Katz got the highest score on Sears' technical test of any applicant in the previous two years. But at his interview, Katz was told that all technicians must work on Saturdays because it was the company's “busiest repair day.” Katz said he couldn't work on Saturdays, his Sabbath, but would work Sundays and evenings. Instead., the company refused to hire him.
Katz filed a religious-discrimination complaint with the New York state attorney general's office. Sears said that accommodating Katz would have constituted an “undue hardship” due to the amount of business on Saturdays. In fact, state investigators found, Sears' busiest repair day was Tuesday, not Saturday. Moreover, investigators found that no technician in the Brooklyn office had to work every Saturday. Sears settled the matter by agreeing to accommodate Sabbath-observant repair technicians. The company also agreed to pay $225,000 to create a multimedia course on employers' legal obligations to accommodate religious beliefs in the workplace.
Cooper v. Oak Rubber Co. (1994) — Cooper, a Seventh-day Adventist, worked as a machine operator at the company, which sometimes asked her to work on Saturday, her Sabbath. Cooper refused on religious grounds. She resigned before she was fired, but then filed a religious-discrimination suit against the company, arguing it had failed to accommodate her religious needs by requiring her to work on Saturday.
The company maintained that the production line on which Cooper worked required a bare minimum of seven employees to operate properly, and that additional workers were needed to cover breaks, lunch periods, vacations and other excused absences. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the company, ruling that it would suffer an “undue burden” if it was compelled to accommodate its employees' religious needs on full-production Saturdays.
Mitroff, Ian I., and Elizabeth A. Denton , A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America: A Hard Look at Spirituality, Religion, and Values in the Workplace, Jossey-Bass, 1999.
The authors argue that companies that foster a “spiritual” workplace tend to have more creative and loyal employees than firms that stifle spirituality. Mitroff teaches at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles; Denton is an organizational consultant in New York.
Nash, Laura, and Scotty McLennan , Church on Sunday, Work on Monday: The Challenge of Fusing Christian Values with Business Life, Jossey-Bass, 2001.
The authors argue that corporate America has not been able to fully embrace mainstream Christian values because of the fundamental tensions that exist between the church and the business community. Nash is a senior research fellow at the Harvard Business School; McLennan is dean of religious life at Stanford University.
Wolf, Michael, Bruce Friedman and Daniel Sutherland , Religion in the Workplace: A Comprehensive Guide to Legal Rights and Responsibilities, The American Bar Association, 1998.
Written for both the lawyer and the layperson, this book outlines the myriad legal and practical issues arising out of the conflict between work and religion. The authors are attorneys with experience in employment law.
Clark, Paul , “Faith at Work: Employers Accommodate Diverse Religious Practices,” The Associated Press Newswires
, Aug. 12, 2001.
Clark reports on how businesses in rural North Carolina are striving to accommodate the religious needs of workers with non-Christian belief systems, especially Muslims and Hindus.
Gray, Helen T. , “Religion in the Workplace,” The Kansas City Star
, March 9, 2002.
The author focuses on the legal issues that often arise when businesses allow their employees to express their religious beliefs, such as by proselytizing and wearing religious garb.
Gunther, Marc , “God & Business: Bringing Spirituality into the Workplace Violates the Old Idea that Faith and Fortune Don't Mix,” Fortune
, July 9, 2001.
Gunther profiles several businesses that say embracing spirituality has enhanced their profits.
Joyce, Amy , “Matters of Belief, Matters of Business: Firms Take a Stand When They Allow Personal Causes to Intrude at the Office,” The Washington Post
, May 12, 2002.
Joyce paints a vivid picture of the problems that can crop up when employees — and especially supervisors — express their religious views in the workplace.
Lewis, Gregory , “Targets of Prejudice,” The South Florida Sun-Sentinel
, June 11, 2002.
Lewis reports on the discrimination that has been directed toward Arab-Americans following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Machalaba, Daniel , “More Employees are Seeking to Worship God On the Job,” The Wall Street Journal
, June 25, 2002.
Machalaba profiles a trucking company that reflects the Christian beliefs of its founder by adorning its trucks with anti-abortion messages and refusing to haul certain items, such as alcohol.
Studies and Reports
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life , “Reconciling Obligations: Accommodating Religious Practice on the Job,” May 21, 2002.
Representatives of business, labor and the religious community discuss legal and practical issues concerning religious observance in the workplace. The transcript of the symposium is available at www.pewforum.org
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press , American Views on Religion, Politics, and Public Policy, March 2002.
A survey of 2,002 adults probes public opinion on a variety of issues, including views about Islam, cloning and the role of religion in America and the world after Sept. 11.
Society for Human Resource Management and Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, “Survey on Religion in the Workplace,” June 25, 2001.
This survey of more than 500 U.S. companies shows how corporate America is dealing with religious expression.
Weiss, Catherine, Caitlin Borgmann, Lorraine Kenny, Julie Sternberg and Margaret Crosby , “Religious Refusals and Reproductive Rights,” American Civil Liberties Union Reproductive Freedom Project, 2002.
The ACLU examines the impact of laws that allow health-care institutions and individual workers to opt out of medical procedures that conflict with their religious beliefs.