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It cuts both ways: Be on guard for religious harassment that offends nonbelievers, too

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Employees are entitled to work in an environment free from religious harassment, and employers should treat such harassment just as seriously as they do any other kind of harassment.

Do that by promptly investigating complaints and fixing any problems you discover. What you don’t want to do is ignore religious harassment.

You may also want to include information on religious tolerance in your training materials. Employees shouldn’t have to endure harassment based on their faith, membership in a particular religion—or even their lack of faith.

Note: In many religious harassment cases, the alleged harasser contends that she’s just exercising her faith by proselytizing. In those cases, you can and should tell her to stop.

Recent case: Zachary Winspear was devastated when his brother Logan committed suicide. Because the two had been close and had together rejected their strict religious background, Winspear was sensitive to religious talk.

Winspear worked closely with the co-owner of the company and confided in him details about his brother’s suicide. Then the co-owner’s wife began working for the company.

She found out about the suicide and pulled Winspear aside to talk with him. She said she had the gift of speaking with the dead and had recently been contacted by Logan. She informed Winspear that Logan was suffering in hell and that he wanted to tell his brother to “find God” so he would be spared the same suffering.

The conversation upset Winspear, and he told the woman to stop. She didn’t and continued to tell Winspear about Logan’s efforts to get him to accept God. Winspear complained to her husband, asking him to get his wife to leave him alone. Instead, the co-owner said his wife had a “gift” and Winspear should follow her advice. The woman continued to press the issue for several weeks.

Winspear finally quit and sued for religious harassment.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals said he had a case based on the behavior he described. Although the woman’s comments may not have continued over a long period of time, they were severe, considering the topic and how sensitive Winspear was about his brother’s suicide.

The court wrote, “It is not only the number of occasions, but the severity of the conduct—playing into Winspear’s expressed grief over his brother’s suicide—that courts must consider.” (Winspear v. Community Development, Inc., et al., No. 08-2041, 8th Cir., 2009)

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