A supervisor informed me that an employee on his shift recently became a born-again Christian. The employee began to listen to Christian rock in the break room, but the supervisor asked him to stop because it might offend others, even though no one has complained. This week, the employee said that he could not work the swing shift on Wednesdays any more because of his church services. As a company, we respect our employees’ religious views, but we have not dealt with religious issues since we had sensitivity training after September 11. What advice can you provide for managing this employee’s religious expressions?


Religion bias claims are on the rise according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the agency has vowed to crack down on employers who violate employees’ rights in this area. True to its word, in June 2009, the EEOC announced that the Vail Corporation, an operator of ski resorts in Colorado, will pay $80,000 and provide employee training to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit. In announcing the settlement, the agency stated that claims of religious discrimination have increased by more than 80 percent in the last ten years.

The EEOC’s lawsuit against Vail charged that Lisa Marie Cornwell, an emergency services supervisor, was subjected to harassment based on her Christian religion, denied religious accommodation and treated less favorably than her male colleagues. Ms. Cornwell’s supervisor, Rick Garcia, allegedly forbade her and another Christian employee from discussing their Christian beliefs with one another while at work. The lawsuit also charged that Mr. Garcia would not allow Ms. Cornwell to listen to Christian music while on duty, on the grounds that the music might offend other employees. In contrast, he had no such restrictions on music containing profanity or lyrics promoting violence against women, music that Ms. Cornwell found offensive.

The lawsuit also charged that Mr. Garcia ridiculed Ms. Cornwell when she asked for scheduling accommodation to attend her preferred religious services. He allegedly denied her scheduling requests while giving the shifts she requested to officers of lower rank. The EEOC argued that Ms. Cornwell could have been scheduled so that she could attend her religious services, without any cost or disruption to Vail’s business operations, and that the company was required by law to reasonably accommodate her request. Finally, the EEOC claimed that Ms. Cornwell’s complaints to managers and human resources led to only one action – her being fired in retaliation for making the complaints.

Employers need to be careful in evaluating employee’s requests for accommodation based on religion. With respect to religion, state and federal law prohibits:

  • treating employees differently based on their religious beliefs or practices (or lack thereof) in any aspect of employment, including recruitment, hiring, assignments, discipline, promotion, and benefits;
  • subjecting employees to harassment because of their religious beliefs or practices (or lack thereof ) or because of religious practices or beliefs of people with whom they associate;
  • denying a requested reasonable accommodation of an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs or practices if an accommodation will not impose more than a minor cost or burden on business operations; and,
  • retaliating against an employee who has engaged in a protected activity.

Your company should have a consistently applied anti-harassment policy that: (1) defines religious harassment; (2) clearly explains what is prohibited; (3) describes procedures for complaining about harassment; and, (4) contains an assurance that complainants will be protected against retaliation. Recommended procedures include a complaint mechanism that provides multiple avenues for complaint; prompt, thorough, impartial investigations; and prompt, appropriate corrective action.

Employers should allow the expression of sincerely held religious beliefs or practices among employees to the same extent that they allow other types of personal expression that are not harassing or disruptive. Such religious expressions may be verbal, such as religious discussions, operational, such as requests for scheduling accommodation, or physical, as in the wearing of clothing or jewelry.

Under California law, your company is required to accommodate your employee’s schedule request unless it will cause undue hardship. Absent complaints from other employees, it is prudent to allow the employee to listen to Christian music while on break if your company does not prohibit employees from listening to other types of music at work. A balance is required to prevent discrimination and unequal treatment based on religion.
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