“Everyone, no discussion of politics and religion, please!”
The chatter of the Mayan apocalypse and Christ’s most certain return this year, which were both initially induced by a Christmas countdown clock email for our desktops, abruptly quieted to a hush of incredulous faces and gasps at the outright authority in my supervisor’s Irish flavored scolding to our office.
His short, and rather stout frame, disappeared back in to his office, and within a few moments, our Venezuelan saleswoman hissed,”Why he tell us not to talk about religion?” She pauses and then follows up with a much more loudly announced statement of,” Oh! He isn’t religious! So he not like the talk.” Coworkers kind of mumble agreement and cast dark faces towards his now closing office door because he isn’t liking the overheard backlash that is seeping into his private capsule of office space, complete with pictures of his grinning daughter and attractive wife.
I instantly feel pity because I know that questioning his beliefs is insulting enough. He is a die hard Irish Catholic, fresh off the boat 15 years ago. Believe me, this man would school many of my coworkers on belief. And I pitied him, because he is simply trying to make sure things do not get out of hand and doesn’t want anyone offended since our office is extremely diverse. So, I sent him an email simply saying,”Thanks for quieting that.” He responded,making it clear he didn’t want things getting out of hand, but I could tell affirmation for his stance helped. His door opened back up, he was out joking with everyone again, and the day resumed.
He has NO knowledge that I am an atheist, and that is appropriate for work, in my opinion. Granted, at the lunch table, it’s a different environment, but in the middle of the work day, my personal beliefs, or lack there of, really have no place for discussion. I’m technically “out” to only one employee, and she is the HR assistant. Ironically, she is a bit of a doubting believer at this point. Leaning more towards agnosticism, and even asks me advice on what and how she ought to expose her children to the religious influences in this world. These discussions are always private without any audience members, and even in these discussions, I carefully dole out my enthusiasm and advice tactfully. This is work, these are my coworkers.
Both of these situations are important to understand your rights, and more importantly, what your rights actually are in the first place. To gain this information, you have to gain an understanding of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act is composed of essentially four subjects: Accommodation, Harassment, Retaliation, and Workplace Proselytizing and Expression. This goes further than just First Amendment rights, which doesn’t address employee rights federally or privately.
So, what is the bottom line of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of l964 (“Title VII”) prohibits employers, except religious organizations, from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment. Title VII also requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of an employee or prospective employee, unless to do so would create an undue hardship upon the employer.
Pretty broad isn’t it?
So, let’s tackle the one of the first parts of this section: Accommodation. That’s a pretty sketchy area in my opinion to some degree. Essentially, if you are a Muslim woman, your employer cannot demand you do not wear a hijab or burkha, unless it would cause “undue hardship upon the employer”. What situations would a full on burkha or hijab be causing undue hardship? I would imagine a sales position in a clothing store maybe? Hard to say. Demanding a full month off a year for religious observation? I would think that could be considered as such because either all those hours will incur overtime for other workers, or they would have to hire someone on a temp basis and train. Praying before you start your day? I don’t think that qualifies as undue hardship, unless extremely loud singing while dancing around your desk chair is involved. Disruption to the work environment of other employees is not acceptable. Even further in to this would be if an employer had to essentially violate a union contract in order to accommodate. Essentially, it boils down to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that this means that an employer need not incur more than minimal costs in order to accommodate an employee’s religious practices. With all of this in mind, an employer can not just simply refuse to accommodate one’s religious needs. Furthermore, federal law applies only to companies with more than 15 employees, although many state and local employment laws protect employees of smaller companies
Let’s complicate Accommodation further with another interesting provision. This law, while intended for those with sincere religious beliefs, doesn’t specify to any particular religion. Religious beliefs don’t have to be socially acceptable, logical, consistent, or even comprehensible to others to be entitled to protection, and courts must not presume to determine the place of a particular belief in a religion or the plausibility of a religious claim. And if you are a Federal employee, you can double down and use this Act PLUS the First Amendment. Yeah, this is SOOOOO crystal clear, right?
Speaking of singing and dancing in prayer around your office chair whilst asking your idol to protect you from the evil sinners in your office, let’s talk about Harassment, the next part of this useful act. I think the Harassment section was probably the most clearly outlined out of the entire act. Essentially, just like every other harassment clause you have heard of, this one specifically says the employer is obligated to provide a workplace free of harassment, intimidation, and repeated insult.
So, if you have coworkers speaking a “kill ’em all” dialogue about Libyan Muslims around the water cooler, this would fall into that category quite easily. (Yes, I had to endure such a conversation…I was sick to my stomach for a few hours after) This type of harassment has the two typical categories of quid pro quo and hostile environment harassment. In the case of quid, this would be a situation where a senior staff member demands you participate or even convert to a preferred belief system, and if you don’t, you get an adverse employment action like skipping over for a raise, changing your shift hours, etc.
A hostile work environment occurs when there is offensive conduct directed at an employee because of that employee’s religion, and where the conduct is so severe or pervasive that it affects the terms or conditions of employment and the employer fails to take reasonable steps to stop the conduct. I think my experiences at the water cooler would fall under that category if I had reported it and nothing happens as a result of said reporting. The upside to both of these classifications is that the Supreme Court ruled that one not be overly psychologically disturbed by the incident to be considered a serious offense.
But, with the confrontation of Harassment, one worries about? Yep, Retaliation. For me, I found this very hard to understand. I always thought Retaliation would be any adverse reaction to whistle blowing. In this case, it’s only whistle blowing as far as violation of the Title VII part of the Civil Rights Act…. So, if you burn your employer or supervisor for discriminating, harassing, or quid pro quo, and in return, you get hit with some type of blatant retaliatory adverse employment reaction, THAT qualifies as retaliation. This charge will stand, even if the original complaint filed by you about discrimination or harassment, or what have you, doesn’t stand. Retaliation is a separate charge. Period.
Okay, are you awake still? If so, then awesome! You made it to the part that I think the majority of secularists want to understand: Workplace Proselytizing and Expression. What are the limits? What are you legally allowed to say? What are you legally allowed to make stop? In reality, this area is still being interpreted by the courts, AND it’s a bit of a double edge sword because the failure to respond to employees’ complaints about proselytizing could lead to charges of religious harassment, but requiring a religious employee to cease proselytizing may result in liability for failure to reasonably accommodate the employee’s beliefs.
It’s this type of law language that makes me want to NEVER be a boss of anyone. EVER. The guidelines are kind of fuzzy and involve the pervasiveness of the proselytizing and how it impacts the work place, as well as the ability and willingness of the employer to make things right.
So, what about that prayer group your office secretary holds every Friday morning? As long as it is voluntary participation, it is legal. It is NOT illegal to invite you to attend, and she can invite you everyday if she wishes, unless you explicitly tell her to stop. That is key here, most everything as far as witnessing at work is very much legal until you tell the person approaching you to specifically cease and desist. YOU have to set the boundaries that are not to be violated. Slogans, bibles, tracts, you name it, are permissible in the workplace. Wearing an anti-abortion pin with the picture of an aborted baby is legal, though, and if asked to either only wear it while at one’s desk, under a jacket, or without the graphic image, is perfectly legal as well. It’s all about limits.
I would like to make things clear though. If you are simply overhearing a private conversation between employees that is going on about sinners burning in Hell, you CANNOT ask them to stop. Well, I mean, you can, but legally you have no right to shut them up anymore than they have the right to overhear you laughing about Ray Comfort’s banana with a friend and demanding you to shut up.
Getting back to my opening paragraph about my boss’s brief alienation from the rest of the office after making it clear discussion of politics and religion were not permitted during active working hours, I wonder if he is kicking himself for having to even do that to begin with.
That Christmas clock email that sparked off the entire mess to begin with?
He sent it.