All associates show up for Bible study class now – or get fired!

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Do these things have anything in common – skirts, hair follicles, the flu and the mark of the beast – and in an article on labor law? I asked this question a few years ago in a ATL Publish.

My response: “Yeah. They all involve employees’ religious beliefs or practices.

The gist of the message was that Title VII “requires[s] an employer, once aware that religious accommodation is necessary [for, say, grooming or dress]to accommodate an employee whose sincere religious beliefs, practices or observances conflict with a work requirement, unless doing so would cause undue hardship.

Instances of religious discrimination that are reported typically involve an employee whose religious beliefs require dress or attire that violates a company’s “appearance policy”, or an employee whose religious beliefs and practices require certain days or certain holidays. Reasonable accommodation is necessary unless it is unduly burdensome on the employer — and it usually is not.

Here’s a twist

What about a case where an employee, who does not share her employer’s religious belief, is nevertheless required by the employer to attend a daily Bible study class – or be fired?

Does this employee have the right to an accommodation, such as being absent from class? In fact, is it even a matter of religious discrimination – no one interferes with their religious beliefs or practices.

Put the question differently: if an employee is entitled to accommodation based on her religious beliefs, is she entitled to accommodation based on her religious beliefs? lack religious beliefs?

Put it to yourself: Does you do you feel comfortable if your supervising partner comes into your office and demands that you attend a daily or weekly study session of a religion you don’t believe in? Or, in the alternative, undergo a termination?

As with anything religious, the answer is not always so simple.

“We start each day with a Bible verse, which we can apply to our lives!”

Last year, such a case arose: A doctor’s office in Texas began holding morning Bible study classes. So far, so good. The problem arose when the company made attendance obligatoryeven for non-believers.

Wow….

It is not a question of preventing employees from practicing their religion or expressing their religious beliefs, but of forcing them to attend religious classes even if they do not belong to the employer’s faith. As the EEOC lawsuit noted at the time, the employer required each employee to “begin each workday with a Bible verse reading or study, to include a discussion of how these principles might be applied to the personal lives of employees”.

I see trouble ahead.

“I’m a Buddhist – Should I go?”

An employee who practices Buddhism has repeatedly asked “to be excused from attending the religious part of the mandatory meetings”.

She was fired – along with three other employees who “were terminated after expressing objections or opposition to the office’s mandatory requirements for compliance with owners’ religious expectations.”

Sounds like it could also be retaliation, right?

“I’m Half Native American And My Church Is A Sweat Lodge: Should I Go?”

These employees have requested accommodation — to be exempt from the religiously-based attendance policy — such as an employee seeking accommodation to wear a hijab or headscarf, or an employee whose religious beliefs require Friday nights off.

It turns out that what prompted me to write this post was a new $800,000 lawsuit filed by a painter who worked for a construction company in Oregon who alleged he was fired because he had refused to attend a mandatory weekly Christian Bible study as part of his job. .

The employee says he is half Native American and claims he was not comfortable attending these classes because “his church is a sweat lodge, his bible is a drum and that’s his form of worship to the creator”. He told the owner that it was illegal to require him to attend, but that he showed up anyway first because he felt he had no other choice.

He finally asked himself, “Am I doing something that makes me really uncomfortable and goes against my own beliefs and keeping my job, or am I refusing to go there and I risk losing my job?

“You are an employee at will: you are fired!”

He stopped going there and lost his job.

It was reported that the company’s lawyer said: “We believe that this requirement [of mandatory attendance] was not illegal. They are employees at will and they were paid to go. It was part of their job, so they were expected to attend.

Hmmm… employees at will? Part of the work — of a painter?

Does it pass the smell test?

The case is a little more complicated, so read the complaint and the news article and make your own decision.

An EEOC attorney said after last year’s lawsuit was filed that while “employers and employees are not required to leave their own religious beliefs at home when they walk through the door of the workplace …the law requires employers to reasonably accommodate company requests to excuse religious activities rather than fire employees who seek such accommodation.

Seems fair to me.

The Oregon employer, however, is unfazed by the new lawsuit; his lawyer said it “did not shake his belief in God“.

Carry

Amen.


richard-b-cohenRichard B. Cohen has argued and arbitrated complex business and employment disputes for nearly 40 years, and is a partner in the New York office of national cloud law firm Fisher Broyles. He is the creator and author of his company’s blog on employment discrimination and received an award from the American Bar Association for his blog posts. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @richard09535496.

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