Employees generally have a great deal of latitude to exercise their religious beliefs at work. Employers generally have less. It’s a delicate balance of religious rights.
Title VII requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs. Thus, for example, they may keep their heads covered or wear facial hair if their religion so dictates. Employers can run their businesses consistent with their owners’ religious beliefs, but only as long as they do not force them on employees who hold different religious beliefs.
It is best to let employees opt out of company-sponsored religious practices, including attending training in which the material is embedded with religious belief. A recent case illustrates why.
Recent case: The EEOC recently won a reverse religious discrimination case in a federal court in New York. The commission filed its suit when United Health Programs of America fired several workers who objected to participating in a training program with strongly religious overtones.
The CEO of United Health Programs decided his employees needed to get along better. The man’s aunt had developed a conflict-resolution program for children called “Onionhead,” which she revised into a training program for adults.
Employees were ordered to attend sessions where they learned about a divine plan for mankind. They were taught how to create a calm, godly work environment by turning off overhead lights. This was supposed to prevent demons from infiltrating offices. Employees were instructed to encourage workplace harmony with prayer and chants.
A number of employees objected, arguing that being required to turn off lights, pray, burn incense and engage in other acts violated their own religious beliefs.
The federal court hearing the case concluded Onion Head was a religiously based program. Forcing participation could, therefore, be reverse religious discrimination. (EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, Inc., No. 14-CV-03673, E.D.N.Y., 2016)
Advice: If you insist on including religion in training programs, be sure to allow exemptions for those claiming violation of their sincerely held religious beliefs. If in doubt, consult your attorney.