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Preference for religion may be illegal discrimination, too

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Hiring,Human Resources

Religious discrimination need not be based on bias against an employee’s religion. The reverse is also possible. Discrimination in favor of a particular religion is also illegal under Title VII and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.

That means religion—or lack of religion—should play no role in the hiring, promotion or disciplining of employees and applicants. Favoring members of one religion at the expense of others is illegal.

Recent case: Lynn Noyes worked for Kelly Services in the computer software and multimedia department, and held an MBA.

Her supervisor and many other employees belonged to a religious group called The Fellowship. The Fellowship has about 2,000 members and describes itself as focusing on “an esoteric interpretation of religion associated with the teachings of the Old and New Testaments, traceable also in Greek philosophy.” About one-third of the members live in a religious compound in Apollo, CA. Members donate at least 10% of their income to The Fellowship.

When Noyes was passed over for a promotion in favor of a member of The Fellowship, she suspected reverse religious discrimination. She later discovered that her supervisor had falsely told others on the selection committee that Noyes wasn’t interested in the position, which Noyes surmised was a way to steer the committee to The Fellowship member.

She sued, claiming discrimination based on lack of membership in a religious organization. The trial judge dismissed her lawsuit, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision and ordered a jury trial, saying Noyes had offered enough evidence to support a claim that her supervisor’s real reason for not promoting her was his preference for The Fellowship’s members. (Noyes v. Kelly Services, No. 04-17050, 9th Cir., 2007) 

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