It’s almost never wise to comment on an employee’s religion or religious practices. But take heart in a new ruling that shows not all inappropriate comments will be deemed discrimination.
Note that employers also can ask employees to remove religious symbols and artifacts placed on display in public areas in order to maintain a professional atmosphere. Don’t, however, ask employees to remove religious symbols or garments they may wear such as a cross, a Sikh turban or a Muslim headscarf without a compelling health or safety reason.
Recent case: Barbara Mercer worked for years as the manager of a self-storage facility. She decorated the rental office with religious figurines and angels and occasionally sold them to customers.
The trouble began when a new company bought the business and a new vice president arrived to speak with Mercer about continuing as the manager. He saw the religious figurines and told Mercer that she was “a little on the overly religious side,” and that the figurines were offensive. Mercer removed the figurines.
Shortly after, the company terminated Mercer. She claimed that the company fired her in part because of her religion and that the VP’s comments were proof.
Not so, concluded the court. To prove the company fired her because of her religion, Mercer had to show four things: (1) She was fired; (2) she was qualified for her job; (3) she was a member of a protected class, and (4) someone replaced her outside her protected class.
The court said she failed the last part of the test: She couldn’t prove that her replacement was not a Christian or that the replacement was less religious than she purported to be. (Mercer v. Capital and Realty, No. 6:05 CV 404, ED TX, 2006)
Online resource: For more advice on complying with religious discrimination law, visit www.eeoc.gov/types/religion.html.
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