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Courts Wrestle With Religion in Workplace

October 10, 1995

Courts are grappling with a growing number of cases on what constitutes religious discrimination in the workplace.

There are discrimination claims by religious employees who have been prevented from discussing religion on the job or organizing Bible study groups with other employees. And in at least one case, an employee who doesn’t want to hear about his employer’s beliefs has filed a harassment lawsuit.

The law itself is looking less clear-cut amid recent decisions. Judges traditionally were unreceptive to attempts by religious employees to bring their beliefs into the office, finding that anything but ``trifling accommodations″ to their religion impose too much of a burden on companies. But now, it’s ``pretty much a muddled field,″ says Dean Kelley, an expert on religious liberties at the National Council of Churches.

What seems clear is that employers will increasingly be asked to juggle the demands of workers who want to express their faith during the workday and those who don’t want to hear it. ``We’re going to see more claims against employers,″ predicts Dudley Rochelle, an Atlanta lawyer who specializes in such cases. ``The interest in spiritual things is growing,″ she adds.

Already, the number of religious-discrimination disputes is rising. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, such charges filed with state and federal agencies grew 31 percent to 2,900 last year from 1990. Lawyers for religious-rights groups say the inquiries they receive about what forms of religious expression are allowed in the workplace are second in number only to questions about religion in public schools. Inquiries about the workplace rise as the holiday season approaches, they add.

Until recently, employees were reluctant to protest constraints on religious expression at work, says attorney Ann-Marie Amiel of the Rutherford Institute, a religious-rights group in Charlottesville, Va., that is handling about 80 lawsuits on religious discrimination in the workplace. ``But now, more and more people are speaking up.″ She attributes the change to Christians’ increasing awareness of their rights.

Advocates of religious rights were heartened after a July ruling by the full 11-member U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis. Isaiah Brown, the former director of information services for Polk County, Iowa, had sued his employer claiming he had been fired because of his religious activities, including on-the-job prayer and Bible discussions. The court, which covers a large part of the Midwest, rejected the employer’s argument that ``occasional″ religious discussion and prayer could place ``undue hardship″ on its operations by polarizing the work force between fundamentalist Christian employees and others. Federal antidiscrimination law requires an employer to ``reasonably accommodate″ an employee’s religious belief unless doing so would cause ``undue hardship″ to the employer’s business.

In ruling for Mr. Brown, however, the court said that the employer wasn’t required to accommodate other religious activities by him that imposed more than a minimal cost. These included opening the office early so that he could pray before the start of the day and having a secretary type up his Bible study notes.

While the decision only applies directly to government employers, the attorneys for religious-rights and church groups say that most of the court’s reasoning should extend to private employers as well.

In a separate case a few weeks earlier, however, the same court found that antidiscrimination law doesn’t require an employer to allow a religious employee with strong views to ``impose those views″ on co-workers.

It ruled that a unit of U S West Inc. had reasonably accommodated a Roman Catholic employee in Nebraska, who claimed a religious vow required her to wear a badge bearing a two-inch color photo of a fetus and the words ``Stop Abortion.″ The company had offered her several options, including covering the button at work, wearing it only in her cubicle or replacing it with one that contained only writing, not pictures.

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