We live in a country that affords us many individual freedoms, among them the right to observe the religion of our choice (subject to some reasonable limits). When a job requirement interferes with a sincerely held religious belief an employer must at least try to provide a reasonable accommodation. Generally speaking, employers must not discriminate on the basis of religion. Guess what? Religious freedom also includes the right to NO religion. It includes the right NOT to pray. Unfortunately, two employers, IHOP and United Health Programs of America are learning that lesson the hard way. Let’s see what see what we can learn from them so we don’t make the same mistakes.
(image from bjconline.org)
You probably don’t need me to point out that prayer is not an essential job function for a dishwasher. (Bet you didn’t think I’d start there, did you?) IHOP (at least one in Pittsburgh, PA) didn’t think so. Here’s how it went: Matthew Grinage, worked at IHOP as a dishwasher. His co-workers and managers often prayed together, and invited him to join them. He declined. Grinage then found himself subjected to a number of hostile comments, which included that he was “going to hell” since he had had cancer, that he was “too soft” and not a “real man”, among others. Grinage complained to management. One manager recommended he join the group. Another manager refused to help. At one point, he was sent home because he did not join the group. Grinage then complained to the franchise owner, who also told him to join the group and “not make a big deal out of it”. He then reached out to the corporate office, which apparently did not respond. IHOP then fired him, and Grinage filed suit last month, seeking lost wages, front pay, compensatory and punitive damages, court costs, attorneys’ fees and interest. Before I comment on this one, let’s look at the second case.
United Health Programs of America and their Parent Company, Cost Containment Group Inc forced their employees to participate in a number of religious practices at work, including prayer, religious rituals, and spiritual cleansing workshops. These practices were part of a belief system apparently developed by the aunt of the company’s CEO, known as “Harnessing Happiness” or “Onionhead” ( I promise I’m not making this up.) 10 employees sued, alleging that in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, it created and exposed them to a hostile work environment. The company allegedly fired one of the ten was fired for opposing these practices. A jury agreed and awarded the employees $5.1 million in damages. The EEOC, which sued on the employees’ behalf will also seek an injunction that prohibits any such future conduct, and back pay for the fired employee.
These cases are a bit unusual in that most religious discrimination cases focus on an employee’s request for an accommodation of a specific religious practice. But Title VII also forbids harassment based on religion. Under Title VII an employer may not coerce an employee to abandon or participate in any religious practices. Unless your organization is one specifically set up to carry out the tenets of a particular faith (e.g. a house of worship, a school or other organization specifically founded under religious auspices) condition employment on participation in religious activities.
Here are some specific lessons that we can learn from the managers at IHOP: If an employee opposes participation in a religious activity, take the complaint seriously. Telling the employee to “not make a big deal out of it” is on the list of Top 5 Things You Shouldn’t Do in this type of scenario. It runs counter to Title VII and the US Constitution. Treat any such complaints the way you would treat other harassment and discrimination complaints. Start by not blowing them off or belittling them. Then investigate and take appropriate remedial action.
As I said from the start, the right to be free from religious discrimination includes the right NOT to participate in religious practices, and the right NOT to pray.
OK, I’m done preaching for now. (See what I did there?) See you next week.
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