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‘In our prayers’ condolences: Is it religious bias?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Q. We send out a condolence card when one of our em­­ployees has a death in the family. We usually say something like, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you at this difficult time.” Now one of our employees has complained about the use of the word “prayer.” Do we need to change the message? — J.H., Utah

A. It seems highly unlikely that the recipient of a sympathy card would sue over a card that expresses a religiously neutral ‘prayer.’ And there doesn’t seem to be any damage for which the employee could sue. With respect to any claim of a hostile environment due to religious discrimination, the “severe or pervasive” element would be missing, since it is neither serious nor repeated. It seems even more unlikely that a court would conclude that the card is evidence of religious discrimination or, if sent by a government employer, evidence that the employer sanctions any particular religion.  

However, I have seen plaintiffs’ lawyers attempt to use such incidents as background evidence of intent. And often, we must make a motion to exclude the evidence from the case since it is more prejudicial than probative of a discriminatory intent. That said, you can avoid the entire issue by leaving out the word “prayers.”

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