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When religion is crux of workplace problems, base discipline on behavior–not belief

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in Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources

Warn managers and supervisors: They must not refer to an employee’s religious beliefs when taking any adverse employment action. That’s true even if the decision being discussed involves a dispute over a religious accommodation.

Recent case: Daniel and Mary Dixon were a husband and wife team who worked for a rental apartment complex as the maintenance manager and renting agent. The Dixons are Christians who believe that removing religious references from public areas is anti-Christian.

Mary Dixon kept a painting on the rental office wall that included flowers and a caption that read “remember the Lilies … Matthew 6:28.”

One day, a supervisor arrived at the rental office ahead of a federal inspection and noticed the painting for the first time. She asked Mary Dixon if the caption was a biblical reference, and was informed it was. The supervisor then ordered her to remove the painting immediately.

Mary initially refused, and asked if she could find her husband first so they could discuss the matter. She then left the office … and the supervisor removed the painting.

Daniel Dixon arrived and tried to put the picture back up. The supervisor called the apartment company’s office and apparently got permission to terminate the two for violating a company policy against displaying religious objects at work.

She first fired Daniel Dixon and then told Mary, “You’re fired, too. You’re too religious.”

The Dixons sued, alleging that the supervisor’s statement was direct evidence of religious bias. They also alleged retaliation.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and ordered a trial. It reasoned that the employer understood that the Dixons were requesting some form of accommodation for their sincerely held beliefs when they initially protested the painting’s removal.

On the other hand, the court also concluded that the Dixons could not sue for retaliation for engaging in protected activity. They had argued that it was protected activity to object to a policy banning the display of religious objects at work, because they believed such a rule was illegal.

However, the court concluded that no reasonable person could believe that a private employer couldn’t ban religious objects from being displayed at work. Since there was no basis for their complaint, they hadn’t engaged in protected activity and their discharge wasn’t retaliation. (Dixon & Dixon v. The Hallmark Companies, No. 10-10047, 11th Cir., 2010)

Final note: A comment made in the heat of the moment burned the employer. There was no need to mention Mary Dixon’s religious beliefs when she was essentially being fired for insubordination. Employers don’t have to put up with argumentative employees just because they are arguing about a religious belief.

A better approach would have been to consult an attorney before making any final decisions. A lawyer could have explained to the Dixons why the employer didn’t have to accommodate their desire to hang a religious painting. The Dixons could then have been offered the option of removing the painting and keeping their jobs, or refusing to remove it and being terminated.

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