You don’t have to ‘Accommodate’ offensive proselytizing

Employers often have to balance the rights of divergent protected groups in ways that seem impossible. Consider what happens when a local ordinance says you cannot discriminate against an employee based on sexual orientation, while state and federal law says you cannot discriminate against someone for a sincerely held religious belief.

You must handle such balancing acts with sensitivity. You can, for example, require all employees to treat each other with respect, no matter what. What you can’t do is require employees to abandon their beliefs. When deciding who’s right and who’s wrong, measure action, not belief.

Recent case: Albert Schwartzberg, who is a practicing Orthodox Jew, worked in customer relations for Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh. The city has an ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and protects homosexual employees from harassment or intimidation. As a company, Mellon allows employees to join voluntary work-based “affinity groups” relating to disability, sexual orientation and other protected characteristics.

The trouble began when Schwartzberg received an invitation to attend a luncheon from the PRISM affinity group for gay and lesbian employees. He fired off an e-mail explaining that his religion said homosexuality was wrong and that there was “treatment available” for gay individuals. PRISM members complained to HR, which issued Schwartzberg a warning for violating the company’s rule against offensive speech.

The e-mails kept coming, and Schwartzberg was denied a raise because of his behavior. He sued, alleging that Mellon had failed to accommodate his religious beliefs when it punished him for expressing them.

The court dismissed his case. It said that no one was forcing Schwartzberg to change his sincerely held beliefs—just to keep them to himself instead of trying to persuade PRISM members they were violating “God’s laws.” (Schwartzberg v. Mellon Bank, No. 02-06-CV-1006, WD PA, 2008)