Was the firing motivated by religious discrimination at work?

by on January 7, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

This Religious discrimination in employment case focuses on the growing mosaic of beliefs.

Hospital HR manager Paul Farnsworth held up a loose-leaf notebook. “Recognize this?” he asked nurse Ruth Liddell.

“I must have left it at my station,” she said. “Please give it back.”

“After we go over a few points,” Paul said, flipping over some pages. “I’m very concerned that you would bring something like this onto a ward with mentally disturbed patients. A ‘Book of Spells,’ the title page says.”

“I’m a follower of the Wiccan religion,” Ruth said. “Each of us has a book like this for personal guidance.”

Inappropate material or religious discrimination at work

“That’s all very well, but what about these passages that hint at vengeance and retribution?” Paul said. “Like the one where you make a doll and sew its mouth shut? And how about the sexual content, like rubbing hot peppers on the crotch of another kind of doll?”

“You’re taking this out of context,” Ruth said. “I really insist that you give my book back. It’s personal property.”

“Sure,” Paul said, handing it over. “And I’ll give you something else along with this filthy piece of trash. A termination notice.” He gave her an envelope. “Your bad judgment in leaving this on the ward is a firing offense. How would suggestible patients have reacted if they’d seen it?”

“Do you allow copies of the Bible on the ward?” Ruth asked innocently.

“Of course,” Paul said. “So what? I don’t want to hear about the Bible from a pagan like you.”

“The Bible is full of sex and violence,” Ruth said, undeterred. “More than my book. You’re firing me because of my beliefs.”

Ruth filed a religious discrimination in employment lawsuit. Did she win?

The decision


The court said the case could go forward, giving the hospital the unappetizing choice of settling the suit or going to trial.

Ruth noted graphic or violent Biblical verses such as, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away,” or another that counsels believers to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices,” could have just as harmful an effect as anything in her Book of Spells on an unbalanced person bent on self-harm.

Also, Ruth pointed out the aversion that Paul expressed for her book and herself. The court said that together, this evidence and Paul’s attitude added up to possible religious discrimination at work.

Remaining dispassionate

HR professionals are often called upon to deal dispassionately with issues that many people get passionate about. Religious belief is one of these issues.

Remember: No matter how strange or distasteful an employee’s creed may seem, it’s illegal to discipline him for it.

Cite: Benz v. Rogers Memorial Hospital, No. 04-C-1079, E.D. Wis., 2/9/06. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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