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Can Religious Beliefs Be a Defense to Discrimination?


In light of the recent media attention surrounding Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson and his suspension for making racist and anti-gay comments, and the position that he was only "expressing his religious beliefs," the question of whether religion can be a valid defense to discrimination has become more interesting.

Discrimination and Religion

Many have made the argument through the ages that the Bible supports slavery, racism, anti-homosexuality, as well as male dominance. It was Jefferson Davis, as President of the Confederate States of America, who said that slavery was "established by decree of Almighty God." There are numerous scriptures in the Bible which, if taken literally, could easily be interpreted to mean that women are meant to be subservient to men. But the big question in the employment arena is: Do laws that protect religious beliefs allow individuals to express those beliefs even if they are considered discriminatory under the law?

What does the right to religious accommodation mean?

Generally, employers are required to accommodate the religious beliefs of their workers, as long as it does not cause undue hardship. Common examples include not scheduling an employee to work on the Sabbath or allowing hair coverings or other clothing requirements in the workplace if they are based on that employee's religious beliefs. But what about speech and religious expression?

Religious Expressions Can Be Restricted in the Workplace

If a religious expression disrupts the employer's business operations, then that expression, whether religiously based or not, can be restricted. For example, in Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard Co., the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that an employer is not required to accommodate religious expression that was "hostile or demeaning" to others in the workplace. In that particular case, an employee was terminated for refusing to remove anti-gay scriptures posted in his workspace, which were visible to others. The lesson to be learned: If you make the workplace uncomfortable for your co-workers, you can be terminated despite your religious beliefs being the basis for the speech.

What constitutes a disruption?

If you make statements, whether at work, outside of work, in public or on social media, or even in a publicized interview, and those statements cause a disruption at work, your employer is not required to accommodate you. That means you could be fired. For example, hanging anti-abortion posters or handing out flyers supporting the notion that a woman's place is at home, would likely cause a disruption in the workplace. Expressing those beliefs to customers would certainly cause a disruption of your employer's business. Not everyone will agree with your beliefs or support your cause and may instead be offended. Although your employer cannot fire you for simply holding those beliefs, he can terminate you for expressing them if it causes a disruption in the workplace.

It is often a fine line between discrimination and religious expression. For this reason, you should consult with an employment law attorney who represents employees. If you believe you may be a victim of workplace discrimination or have questions regarding your rights, please contact our firm either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.

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