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Religion in the Workplace

Employees do not leave their religious beliefs behind when they go to work. But, those beliefs seldom matter to employers or fellow employees. Where religious beliefs affect dress or appearance, there may be an impact in the workplace. There may be conflicts with the employer’s practices and policies or with other employees. Religious beliefs may also have an effect when employees practice their religious beliefs at work. Both Title VII and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act forbid discrimination based on religion, and require employers to accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs.
This is what happened in one workplace. A female former software developer sued the defendant temporary employment agency claiming religion discrimination in violation of Title VII. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant denied her promotions because she was not a member of a religious group that the other employees belong to. The plaintiff further alleged that in a period of four years there were five management positions for which she was qualified and that four of those positions went to members of that religious affiliation. The defendant denied the allegations and claimed that the fellowship was not a religion, but a philosophical group and that the plaintiff was not a good choice to boost morale within the software group. The jury awarded the employee $647,174 in emotional distress damages, and $5,900,000 in punitive damages. Noyes v. Kelly Services, Case No. 2:02-cv-02685 (E.D. Cal. April 2008). Read the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that ordered the case to go to trial here.
Another case illustrates the circumstances under which an employer may limit an employee’s practice of her religion at work. A student intern at at the Department of Children and Family Services handed out religious literature during her internship hours at the Department and shared her religious views with colleagues. After becoming concerned that the employee would not be able to separate her religious beliefs about homosexuality and abortion from her work with clients, the Department had the University to place plaintiff in a different internship at another agency. The jury agreed that the employer was right to have the intern placed in a different agency. Escobar v. Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, Case No. CV060917 (C.D. Cal. April 10, 2007).
For further information on employer obligations with respect to religion, consult these sources:

  1. Questions and Answers: Religious Discrimination in the Workplace(EEOC)
  2. Best Practices for Eradicating Religious Discrimination in the Workplace(EEOC)
  3. “Religion” portion of Case Analysis Manual (DFEH)