Two recent cases out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (which includes Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Missouri, Arkansas, and North and South Dakota) serve as important reminders that employers should be alert to potential claims of religious discrimination and religion based harassment occurring in their work places:

  • On July 31, the EEOC announced that AT&T, Inc. paid $1.3 million to satisfy a judgment entered in favor of two employees who were terminated after they took time off work to attend an annual conference of Jehovah’s Witnesses.    The judgment was entered after a jury trial in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, and was affirmed by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. 
  • On July 29, a panel of Eighth Circuit reversed a trial judge’s ruling granting summary judgment to an employer in a religious harassment case.   The plaintiff in Winspear v. Community Development, Inc., alleged he was subject to a religiously based hostile work environment by his boss’ wife, who also worked for the company as a receptionist.   The Court of Appeals held the trial judge failed to consider whether a hostile work environment was created by the wife’s repeated comments that plaintiff’s deceased brother was suffering in Hell, and that plaintiff needed to find God to avoid the same fate.   

Claims based upon an employee’s religion are not as common as those based upon other protected characteristics, such as sex, race, age, or disability.  Nonetheless, EEOC statistics reflect an increasing number of charges alleging religious discrimination or harassment.  In response to this trend, the EEOC published the following documents to assist employers in evaluating their rights and obligations under Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of religion:

Some important takeaways from these documents include:

  • Employers should have a well publicized and consistently applied anti-harassment policy that specifically includes harassment on the basis of religion or religious practice, including a mechanism for making complaints, allowing for investigations, and preventing retaliation;
  • Employers should permit non-disruptive and non-harassing religious expression among employees to the same extent other types of personal expression is allowed;
  • Supervisors should be permitted to engage in religious expression, but they should avoid expressing themselves in a manner that a subordinate could perceive as coercive, even if not intended that way;
  • Polices and practices concerning the reasonable accommodation of employee’s religious practices should be developed and communicated to employees.  Such practices might cover scheduling, breaks for prayer, dress, and grooming; 
  • When considering whether an employee’s requested accommodation causes undue hardship, or whether a particular religious expression is disruptive, employers should gauge the actual hardship or disruption that will result, and not speculate about what may occur.   Managers should be flexible in exploring alternatives that will permit the employee’s religious practice while also allowing the employer to operate its business.

Image: Joan of Arc (from Flickr)