Some employers ban discussion of religion at work, believing that talking about faith might constitute harassment or coercion of workers who aren’t members of a majority religious group. But such a prohibition can cause more problems than it solves.
In fact, banning all religious talk may violate the right of employees to practice their religion, since some sects actually require adherents to at least acknowledge their beliefs if asked.
Recent case: Eric Weathers was a manager for FedEx until he quit and sued over religious discrimination and accommodation.
Weathers describes himself as a conservative, evangelical Christian and belonged to a Bible-study group made up of Christian FedEx employees.
Weathers was preparing to terminate a female employee when the woman filed an internal religious-discrimination complaint against him. She claimed that Weathers frequently quoted scripture, which made her feel uncomfortable. Among the scripture quotes Weathers used was one that says slaves should be obedient to their masters. Weathers likened this to the modern employer/employee relationship.
FedEx concluded that Weathers hadn’t broken any specific rules, but still told him that, from then on, he shouldn’t mention his religion or quote scripture. He was specifically told that if another employee asked him about religion, he could not respond. In addition, he was informed that he could not reveal to anyone that his college major had been Bible and Youth Ministries.
In an email, Weathers asked HR how he could follow the new rule when his religion required him to “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you.” He asked where in Title VII it said he could not answer a direct question on faith from another employee. HR didn’t respond.
Later, an HR representative who had helped draft the rules directly asked Weathers to define “atheist.” He could not, since that would require him to mention religion.
In court, FedEx first argued that Weathers didn’t hold a genuine religious belief that required him to state his faith if asked. The court didn’t buy that argument.
FedEx also argued that there would be no way to accommodate Weathers’ request to speak of his beliefs if asked. The court disagreed, since it was clear that FedEx had ignored Weathers’ query and never treated it as a request for reasonable accommodations. Plus, the court noted that the HR rep who approached Weathers with the “What is an atheist?” question was trying to bait him into violating the rules laid out for him.
The court said a jury should decide whether FedEx had refused to accommodate Weathers’ sincerely held religious beliefs. (Weathers v. FedEx, No. 09-C-5493, ND IL, 2011)
Advice: Institute reasonable rules that balance the rights of all employees, no matter what religion they may (or may not) practice. Ask your attorney to help you draft a religious-accommodation policy.
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