Late August means it’s time for the Iowa State Fair, one of the Top 100 Events in North America, home of corn dogs, the butter cow, and over one million visitors. One of the interesting side-shows at this year’s fair involved the Des Moines Regional Transit Authority (DART), an atheist organization, and a Christian bus driver. It all started when an organization billing itself as the "Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers" purchased advertising space on the side of buses to coincide with the Fair. DART’s advertising manager agreed to run the ads, but was later overruled by the Board of Directors, which was concerned about offending bus riders. Even the Governor weighed in on the controversy. DART changed its mind and decided to run the ads after the Iowa Civil Liberties Union promised to investigate whether the atheists’ free speech rights had been violated.
Unfortunately for DART, the controversy was far from over. When the ads were published, one of DART’s Christian bus drivers refused to drive the bus assigned to her because it contained the atheists’ ad, which offended her because of her religious beliefs. DART promptly suspended the driver, and then gave her three options: 1) returning to her former position with the understanding that a refusal to drive whatever bus was assigned would result in termination; 2) transferring to a para-transit route, where buses do not contain as much advertising; 3) resigning her position.
As of this publication, there is no word on what the driver decided to do. Regardless, this episode contains a lesson for Iowa employers: be careful when imposing discipline when it involves an employee’s exercise of religion. Employees have the right to a reasonable accommodation for their sincerely held religious beliefs. That does not mean an employer is obligated to do whatever the employee demands, but managers should listen to the employee’s concern, and make a genuine inquiry whether there is some reasonable accommodation that will permit the employee to practice her religion while at the same time resulting in minimal disruption of the business. For more on this subject, see this post from a couple of weeks ago: Update: Religious Discrimination.