Does religious discrimination in the workplace extend past the work day

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

Can a boss’s beliefs make him ineffective?

When Bob Bond arrived for work at Carroll Park Communications on Monday, he discovered that his office had been cleared out and his possessions moved to a cubicle in the sales department. Bob went right to his manager, Mark Arost. “Mark, what’s going on? Can you explain what happened to my office?”

“Bob, we all read the article in Saturday’s paper about your involvement in the Creator’s Church. Who’d have guessed you were a minister in an organization that advocates white supremacy? I have no choice but to relieve you of supervisory duties.”

“You can’t do that!” Bob exclaimed.

“We can’t fire you,” replied Mark, picking up a letter from his desk. “But here’s a letter explaining that we’ve demoted you from supervisor to telephone solicitor because of your activities with a hate group.”

Going public makes a difference in religious discrimination lawsuit

Bob read the letter. “The Creator’s Church is a religious organization,” he said. “I don’t bring my beliefs to the office, and you’ll have to agree that my performance over the years has been good. The article changes nothing.”

“It changes everything!” exclaimed Mark. “You’re a leader in our company. Half your staff are members of minority groups. You were effective as long as you had credibility and could earn their trust. But you’ve lost it.”

“They’ll trust me the same way they always have,” Bob said.

“No they won’t,” Mark shot back. “Don’t you understand how repugnant your beliefs are, not just to minorities but to everybody? Your people won’t put out for you anymore. Half of them will probably quit. Not only that, if potential recruits recognize you we’ll lose good hires. Your presence in a supervisory role will hurt our company. I can’t let that happen.”

Bob sued, claiming religious discrimination in the workplace. Did the court agree?

The decision

Yes. The court sided with Bob.

At issue was whether “The Creator’s Church” was actually a religion. The court said that even though the belief system was widely regarded as immoral and unethical, it was actually a religion because it contained precepts by which its members professed to live.

In other words, it was a religion because it functioned as a religion for Bob.

The court found that the demotion letter was direct evidence of religious discrimination in the workplace because it contained an admission that Bob was demoted because of his religion.

Was demotion an accommodation?

The company’s attorneys argued that by relegating Bob to a lesser-paying position and stripping him of his supervisory duties, the company was simply accommodating him.

But the court threw out that argument because Bob never sought an accommodation.

Moreover, the court concluded that Bob had been demoted for his beliefs, not for his actions. And as odious as his beliefs may have been, he was entitled to hold them without fear of religious discrimination in the workplace.

The record showed that Bob had been a good employee. By all accounts, he never engaged in any racist activities at work. None of his subordinates – including those who were not white – had ever complained about him.

Company made hasty assumptions

This case underscores the importance of making sound, unemotional business decisions. Removing Bob from his supervisory job may have seemed like a noble idea, but it was doomed. The company should have let Bob continue supervising people and documented carefully whether his religious beliefs made him less effective.

Without any such evidence, Bob’s company was wrong to practice workplace religious discrimination.

Cite: Peterson v. Wilmur Communications, Inc., U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Wisconsin, No. 01-C-0162, 6/3/02. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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