Issues with people of different beliefs — and those with none at all — are showing up more in the workplace - East Valley Tribune: Business

Issues with people of different beliefs — and those with none at all — are showing up more in the workplace

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Posted: Thursday, December 15, 2005 5:31 am | Updated: 9:07 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Faith is not being left at the office door. More and more, religion is entering the workplace, creating a burgeoning area of employment law, experts say.

Religious discrimination lawsuits are up significantly as workers and employers squabble over holidays, dress codes, Bible studies and religious symbols.

"In many workplaces, there are many religious wars occurring as we speak," said Joe Clees, a Phoenix human resources attorney who has dealt with civil rights issues for two decades.

"I think we all sort of thought over the years religion would sort of diminish in importance in working life," he said. "In fact, it seems to more and more important, and regulators are increasingly paying attention to religious issues."

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed 1,388 religion-based charges against employers in the United States in 1992, said Mary Jo O’Neill, regional attorney in Phoenix district office. In 2004, the latest numbers available, there were 2,466 charges, a nearly 78 percent increase over the past 12 years.

"We’ve had many religious accommodation cases for every different kind of religion you can imagine, LDS, non-LDS, Christian, Jewish. We have a case we’re litigating right now that has to do with somebody who is a pagan. People’s religious beliefs run the gamut, and it seems we all could do with a bit more . . . acceptance and tolerance about other people’s religious belief practices," O’Neill said.

There are several factors for the increase of religion at work, said Clees, managing shareholder of the Phoenix office of Ogletree Deakins. Generally, employees tend to be a little more fervent with stronger beliefs in their rights in the workplace, he said.

"We’re seeing the rise of a lot of religions that include active proselytizing at work," he said. "Most of the wars that are going on in the world now are religious-related. So religion and religious passion tend to be high at all levels of public life and that naturally does then spill over to the workplace. A lot of religions preach that it should be adhered to both at work and at home."

At the same time, nonreligious people are increasingly adamant, Clees said. Atheists are regularly challenging crosses and Christmas trees, and civil liberties groups continue to aggressively try to stop the display of religious information and displays, at least in the public sector, he said.

Also, there are more employers who adhere to Christian and other religious tenets, and they sometimes seek to apply those to others within the workplace as well, Clees said.

"People are more willing to challenge than they used to be," he said.

Os Hillman, founder and director of the International Coalition of Workplace Ministries, said about 1,300 organizations are listed in the International Faith and Work Directory, a listing of workplace ministries and organizations focused on integration of faith and work. About 800 of them are nonprofit workplace ministries, he said.

"We’ve also seen a tremendous growth really in the last five years as it relates to faith groups birthing inside corporate America," he said. "This has largely happened under the human resources department under the banner of diversity, where different affinity groups within the organization have said ‘We would like to have a meeting room for this or that, and we have a certain agenda.’ "

Hillman, a former ad agency owner, is a faith and work expert who has written 10 books. He calls the move of religion to work the "the next great movement of God. . . . Within the Christian area, we do believe it is a real move of God based on the fact of the growing interest in spirituality in the population."

Employers walk a fine line when it comes to how far they allow religion to go. O’Neill said there is animosity toward Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which requires employers to accommodate the religious beliefs of employees.

"Employers say ‘but I should treat everybody the same.’ Of course, in general that’s true. But when it comes to religion and disability, you have to treat people a little bit differently," O’Neill said. "Obviously in terms of something happening in the workplace, one needs to be careful about religious harassment . . . and make sure people who are of other faiths don’t feel coerced or intimidated or harassed because of somebody’s religion."

Most religion discrimination cases have to do with company dress codes and employees who want time off for religious reasons, O’Neill said. More unusual in a recent case involving Serrano’s, an East Valley Mexican food restaurant chain that was sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of a former manager who was fired in 2001 after she invited subordinates to attend Bible study classes outside of work hours. The company said the classes violated a policy against fraternization.

A jury sided with the restaurant in June, but in September a judge granted a new trial. The judge said the jury didn’t follow his instructions and it was wrong in its finding.

The case is emblematic of the tough position the employer is in, Clees said.

"Employers sometimes are in a no-win situation on this one," he said. "In Serrano’s, they were trying to make sure employees didn’t feel coerced into going to religious services. Ultimately, at least the EEOC felt the were violating religious association rights of employees."

Hillman argues the Bible speaks of the attributes Christian workers should have, and they are same ones employers find valuable — excellence, ethics, integrity and love of service.

"What most people are concerned about is the whole area of proselytizing and discrimination, and I happen to agree with them," he said. "The workplace is not a place to proselytize people on the job. It’s a place to do our work with excellence. But at the same time, on lunch hours or break times, if you develop a relationship with someone and you have something that’s important in your life — that’s helped you in your life — it’s natural to want to share that. All we do is tell people, ‘Look, use common sense, don’t abuse that and give your employer an honest day’s wage and make him successful. That’s your first priority.’ "

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