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Employment Matters: Religion in the Workplace

The U.S. Constitution protects the right of all citizens to practice the religion of their choice and prohibits government entities from establishing a “preferred” religion. What happens when an employee’s religious beliefs are brought into the workplace? Does it matter if the employer is a private entity or a public institution? These questions are among those that have been discussed in courtrooms across the country as more religious individuals are making their private religious beliefs very public. Employers should use caution when handling matters of religion in the workplace, or they may be faced with a religious discrimination investigation or lawsuit challenging a potentially unconstitutional decision.

Religious Expression

Federal, state and local anti-discrimination laws protect employees from unequal treatment in the workplace based on their religious beliefs. This protection includes certain manners of dress, leave issues, and behaviors that can be attributed to the employee’s strongly held religious belief.  It also prohibits harassment of an employee because of his or her religion. This last protection is important for managers and company leaders to address quickly as “harmless banter” can turn into a hostile work environment very quickly. Employees who believe that they have been discriminated against in the workplace have the right to file a complaint with federal and state administrative agencies, which are tasked with conducting investigations that can last for months or even years.

Public v. Private Workplace

As mentioned previously, governmental employers are barred from engaging in any conduct that could be construed as unconstitutional promotion of religion. This fact has not stopped a certain public official in Texas from bringing his religion into the workplace by encouraging state officials to refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses despite a recent Supreme Court ruling stating that such actions are unconstitutional. The official is now facing an ethics investigation into his conduct as he swore to uphold the laws of the United States when he took public office, not the laws of his chosen religion.

Private employers, however, do not face the same constitutional scrutiny. In a case almost as infamous as Obergefell, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby upheld an employer’s right to blend their religious beliefs into their employment policies and practices.  The Court held that Hobby Lobby (and corporations similarly situated) could not be mandated to provide insurance coverage to employees via health plans that included coverage for items that were objectionable to the religious principles of the company owners. The ruling essentially upheld private company owners’ rights to express their religious beliefs did not stop at the door of the company. The Court was careful to note, however, that employers were still required to comply with anti-discrimination laws and “were unlikely to prevail if they objected to complying with other laws on religious grounds.” 

Need Guidance?

Employers should use caution any time that they develop policies and procedures that affect employees, even if they do not implicate religion. If your company leaders wish to continue moving forward while minimizing the risk of future litigation, call the law office of Garcia & Gurney today. Our attorneys have years of experience in all areas of employment law and know what it takes to keep a company on a path to success.

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