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When does ‘religious expression’ cross the line?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources

Issue: You must walk a fine line between allowing employees' religious expression and preventing that expression from harming the business or creating unbalanced treatment of employees.

Benefit: Federal law says you can deny a religious accommodation request if it would create an "undue hardship" for your organization.

Action: Educate managers about your organization's religious rights and duties under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The people who work for your organization are clearly entitled to their own religious beliefs, and they're allowed to show that religious expression at work ... up to a point.

When can you say "Stop"? Federal law says you don't have to accommodate a religious expression if it creates an "undue hardship" for your organization. Also, you can stop an employee's religious practice if it interferes with the rights of other employees, especially with your responsibility to create a harassment-free environment for everyone.

Recent case: When Hewlett-Packard (H-P) posted workplace-diversity posters that included a picture of someone identified as being homosexual, employee Richard Peterson protested by posting two scriptures in his cubicle that condemned gays. When the company asked him to remove the scriptures, he agreed to do so only if the company removed the diversity posters. H-P removed Peterson's scriptures and placed him on paid leave of absence to allow him to reconsider his decision. When he returned, he posted the scriptures again, so H-P fired him for insubordination.

Peterson sued, alleging religious discrimination and claiming that the diversity campaign offended fundamentalist Christians. A lower court rejected Peterson's claim, and a federal appeals court agreed.

Court's reasoning: Peterson was fired not because of his religious beliefs, but because he was insubordinate and his anti-gay postings violated the company's anti-harassment policy. The only accommodation Peterson was willing to accept (removing the company's diversity posters) would have im-posed an undue hardship on the company. (Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 9th Cir., 2004)

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