Law column: Handling religion in the workplace


AR-160139963 (1)

Source: The Gazette

Religion is one of the most confusing areas in employment law and also one of the fastest-growing areas of employee complaints and concerns.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), religious discrimination charges have increased 50 percent in the past 10 years. A major reason for this is that many religions require various duties and practices such as acknowledgment of different holidays, diet, attire, manners of wearing one’s hair and beard, and types of prayer — any of which could lead to conflict with existing employment policies and co-workers’ beliefs.

Iowa and federal law prohibits three forms of religious discrimination:

• Disparate treatment — treating a specific employee differently because of his or her religious beliefs/practices

• Disparate impact — having a policy or practice that negatively affects a class of employees practicing a particular religion

• Hostile work environment — permitting a workplace permeated with ridicule and hostility toward a person because of his or her religious beliefs/practices.

An employer, for example, cannot refuse to hire or promote members of a particular religion. Conversely, requiring employees to attend monthly religious or prayer meetings as a condition of employment also may be unlawful.

The courts and EEOC do make a limited exception for employers at expressly religious places of business. If a not-for-profit organization’s purpose is, for example, to promote Roman Catholicism or atheism, it may hire based on its purposes.

Finally, religious harassment is prohibited. Tolerating severe and repeated insults or threats will lead to bad outcomes.

In one case, a Missouri woman who converted to Islam said she was harassed for years at AT&T after she converted, with her co-workers making harassing comments about her religion including being called a “towel head” and referring to her headscarf, or hijab, as “that thing on her head.” A jury awarded her nearly $5 million in punitive damages (which will be reduced under employment law caps on such damages).

Another jury in Arkansas ordered AT&T to pay $1.3 million to several former employees allegedly fired for attending a Jehovah’s Witnesses convention. However, a simple disagreement over religious principles likely will not constitute unlawful harassment.

Iowa employers also have a duty to reasonably accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs or practices of their employees unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on their business operations. Employers should focus on whether the employee’s request is “reasonable.”

Such accommodations rarely cost much, but merely require good managerial planning. For example, providing Muslim employees with a flexible work schedule for them to pray at sundown, particularly during Ramadan, likely is reasonable.

What about head coverings, robes, long hair and beards and similar expressions of faith? It depends on your business, and whether personal appearance will unduly interfere with your business operations.

A restaurant owner, for example, may require its cooks to wear hairnets or short hair to comply with health and safety requirements.

Employers should discuss religious accommodation issues with employees. In one case, for example, a woman made a sacred vow to wear a photo of an aborted fetus around her neck to work every day. Other employees were uncomfortable with the image. The employer and employee discussed the issue, and the employee was permitted to wear the photo every day but was required to cover the photo while at work.

Many religions also try to recruit others to their faith, post religious messages in their workplace or use religious language when communicating with others. The risk is that such employees may cross the line and inadvertently become a harasser of their co-workers.

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