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When religious freedom & harassment collide

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

After all the publicity surrounding the Supreme Court’s legalizing of same-sex marriage this year, some employers are finding they have to balance the rights of employees to express their religious beliefs against the rights of others to marry and have relationships free from harassment.

Fortunately, employers that have strict codes of conduct prohibiting harassment of any kind can still punish employees whose religious beliefs are behind their harassment of gay co-workers. You can’t interfere with an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, but you can punish religious “expression” that interferes with another employee’s rights.

Recent case: Loudesia, a police records specialist, was terminated for her disciplinary history, including a last-straw incident that violated the employer’s policy against harassment based on sexuality.

The allegations centered on a series of interactions between Loudesia and a volunteer intern who was gay. The intern complained that Loudesia frequently wouldn’t let her into the building and made comments like, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

Loudesia sued, alleging that she had been terminated because of her religious beliefs, including that homosexuality is a sin. She said her comments were an expression of her beliefs.

The court dismissed her claims, reasoning that while Loudesia was free to hold religious beliefs that included condemnation of homosexuality, she wasn’t free to express those beliefs in a way that created a hostile environment for others at work. The employer was within its rights to discipline her. (Flanagan v. City of Richmond, et al., No. 14-02714, ND CA, 2015)

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