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Consistency: Your key defense

Employer singles out Bible readers, has no prayer in court

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Three employees at a Minnesota prison complained when told they had to sit through a mandatory training session on gays and lesbians in the workplace. The warden tried to ease their religious concerns by issuing a memo assuring workers that the session was aimed at creating a respectful work environment, not on influencing their personal beliefs.

During the training program, the employees protested by silently reading their Bibles, copying scriptures and limiting their participation. The workers were given written reprimands, making them ineligible for promotions for two years.

The three sued, claiming religious discrimination and a violation of their free speech rights. The employer argued that the workers were reprimanded for insubordination because they refused to be trained. But a federal appeals court let the case go to trial.

The "critical fact," the court said, was that the employer had never disciplined other workers who were inattentive during training, including some who slept or read magazines. (Altman v. Minnesota Department of Corrections, Nos. 00-1168, 00-1489, 8th Cir., 2001)

Advice: You'd like to think you have some control over employees' participation in training. But whenever an employee uses religion to complain, it should raise a caution flag. To avoid trouble, make sure your discipline is consistent with how you've treated workers in the past. Then document your actions.

In this case, the consistency argument was blown out of the water because no other employee had ever been disciplined for inattention during training. When you've turned a blind eye to misbehavior, punishing the same actions by a protected group is asking for a lawsuit.

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