Steve White is an attorney in Blue Springs

The decades-old Title VII of the Civil Rights Act has come a long way in curbing discrimination in the workplace. The enforcement arm of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, together with private civil suits, have done a reasonably good job of righting workplace wrongs by forcing employers to identify and eliminate workplace disparate treatment of employees based on gender, race, age, disability, and national origin.

Many employers, both large and small, have felt the sting of heavy monetary sanctions levied upon them by the EEOC and civil courts and juries for allowing pervasive discrimination at work. Too often employers do not go far enough, soon enough, in disciplining offending employees. Consequently, employers face even stiffer penalties for failing to take appropriate remedial action to eliminate workplace discrimination in a timely fashion once they become aware of the discrimination. 

The growth of human resource departments in companies of all sizes is in large measure due to the impact of discrimination claims and employees’ ignorance or inability to recognize what does and does not constitute unlawful discrimination. As a result, companies have spent enormous sums to train and educate their employees along with adopting elaborate policies and procedures to identify and root out unlawful discrimination.

The Civil Rights Act also protects religious expression in the workplace and requires “reasonable accommodation” of workers’ religious beliefs as long as the accommodation doesn’t cause “undue hardship” to the employer.  “Reasonable accommodation” vs. “undue hardship” is easier said than done when put in to the real world of employment discrimination, especially religious discrimination. 

The U.S. has more religions than any other country. This vast variety is seen as a blessing by some, but when those beliefs enter the workplace, confrontation, retaliation and lawsuits step to the fore. The following are some recent examples that illustrate the dilemma.

Hewlett-Packard, in an effort to promote its antidiscrimination policy, put up posters celebrating its diversity featuring a gay employee and his achievements. A devout evangelical Christian employee responded by placing large placards containing anti-homosexual Biblical passages in his cubical which were clearly visible to employees and customer alike.

HP was concerned customers and other employees would be offended, so it removed the placards and the employee sued alleging religious discrimination. 

The court ruled there was no unlawful discrimination because allowing the placards to remain posted “would have forced the employer to exclude sexual orientation from its (HP’s) workplace diversity program, infringing upon the employer’s right to promote diversity and encourage tolerance and good will among its workforce.”

Other documented cases include a nurse who was terminated and claimed she was the victim of unlawful religious discrimination because she refused to participate in an obstetric procedure, and a pharmacist who was terminated because his religious beliefs prevented him from filling a birth control prescription. A terminated police officer also claimed he was the victim of religious discrimination because he refused to protect employees of an abortion clinic under siege by anti- abortion protesters. Not one of these suits was successful, yet the employers bore the brunt of the cost and time of defending the claims.

Title VII’s  “reasonable accommodation” requirements recognize an employees’ freedom to practice prayer and display religious symbols at work. Clothing, hats, caps, turbines and jewelry are usually permissible in the work place and protected activity unless such practice “creates an undue hardship” upon the employer. 

So, with this very brief background, let’s suppose you own a business that is primarily personal service, like a lawyer, doctor, insurance broker, or accountant. Suppose further, your receptionist is a dyed in the wool evangelical Christian whose church demands strict compliance with its religious dogma 24/7, including a prohibition against uttering falsehoods of any kind.

Now, this receptionist is a real asset to your business, yet in spite of instructions to the contrary, she absolutely refuses to tell callers you are not in, when, in fact, your are at your desk working away. When confronted about her refusal to tell a little fib concerning your whereabouts, she steadfastly responds “my religion tells me there is no lie too small, thus I cannot lie for you or anyone else.”

If you show her the door, aren’t you infringing upon her freedom of religious expression? You’ve taken her job away because her religious beliefs will not allow her to lie for you as a condition of her job. Much to her dismay, you replace her with another person perfectly willing to approach the truth with a great deal of caution.

Is this fair? Should the law protect you for letting her go?