Can an Employer Violate the Law

by Expressing a Religious Message?

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            Some employers around the country include faith-based messages in their employee handbooks and mission statements.  Tyson’s and ServiceMaster’s mission statements provide, respectively: “We strive to honor God and be respectful of each other, our customers, and other stakeholders.” and “Honor God in all we do.”  The emergence of such messages reflect a degree of new, overt religious expression in corporate America.

            But the courts have found that mission statements are one thing, but personnel actions that take evangelism too far are another.  In a 2007 case from California, an employee proved “reverse religious discrimination” by demonstrating that a disproportionate number of workers who shared the CEO’s religious beliefs were hired and promoted.  (Noyes v. Kelly Services, 488 F. 3d 1163 - Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit 2007.)  The plaintiff did not subscribe to the same religious practices and was held back.  In another 2007 case, out of Florida, a Buddhist showed that his negative performance assessment and termination were pretextual because of his supervisor’s open and fundamentalist views about non-Christian religious practices, including Buddhism.

            An organization may declare its official credo to be under God, but imposing religious views through personnel practices are dangerous.  “We walk with Jesus” on corporate letterhead, by itself, is lawful, but the same company will violate the law if it favors Christians over non-Christians in its hiring, promotion, and pay practices.  Asking one’s reports to bow their heads in prayer at the end of a planning meeting may be a problem,  particularly if this prayer is mandatory.

1/19/10