Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Religious discrimination claims rise

This morning's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports on the increasing number of religious discrimination cases. Title VII (and Ohio's counterpart, R.C. 4112), prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment. For example, religious harassment is just as illegal as sexual harassment, and an employer has the same duty to investigate a claim by a Muslim employee that he is being harassed on account of his religion as it would have to investigate a claim of sexual harassment by a female employee. In our post-9/11 world, such claims have become more and more prevalent.

The law also requires employers to reasonably accommodate the sincerely held religious practices of an employee or prospective employee, unless doing so would create an undue hardship. Some common examples of reasonable accommodation are flexible scheduling, voluntary substitutions or swaps, job reassignments, and lateral transfers. These situation most often arise when an employee requests a day off for a religious holiday (such as Good Friday or Yom Kippur), or seeks not to be scheduled to work on the Sabbath. An employer can claim undue hardship if accommodating an employee's religious practices requires more than ordinary administrative costs. For example, hiring a new employee or rescheduling other employees would probably present an undue hardship, while other employees volunteering to cover a shift most likely would not. Moreover, a religion does not have to be traditional to qualify for protection. The Post-Gazette article cites a California case in which a vegan bus driver won a judgment against a county transit agency for firing him after he refused to hand out "free hamburger" fliers for a fast food restaurant.

As workplaces are becoming more culturally, ethnically, and religiously diverse, religious discrimination will continue to be a hot button issue. Employers should not ignore requests for accommodations, no matter how strange they might seem. One person's Mind Body Energy is another person's Christianity. The accommodation may have a small price associated with it, but I can assure you such a price will almost always be less than the price of defending a discrimination lawsuit.