Many employers undoubtedly wish to keep those two often emotional topics out of the workplace. Yet so long as people will have the gift of speech and the ability to believe, religion and politics are likely to pop up.
When it comes to the former, in the public, constitutional arena, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld this term a small town’s practice to hold prayers at the beginning of its meetings. Though the decision on the particular practices at issue came from a court divided 5 to 4, this division hides a remarkable consensus. All 9 justices agreed that legislative sessions or town hall meetings need not be religion-free zones.
That has always been the case for private companies, as a timely piece in the Florida Bar Journal reminds us. That is because both Florida and Federal law, by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion, also direct employers to accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs.
In that regard, employers will need to remember that “religious” goes beyond the traditional, organized religions of old like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and others. It also includes uncommon beliefs from unusual religions. For that matter, as far as non-discrimination laws are concerned, Atheism is a form of religious belief.
Furthermore, the religious beliefs or practices that must be accommodated are legion. They can range from time for prayer to wearing certain clothes, displaying certain symbols, or eating (or not eating) certain foods.
On the other hand, the employer needs only extend reasonable accommodations. An accommodation is something that eliminates the conflict with the employee’s religious beliefs. It is reasonable if it does not cause the employer undue hardship, which typically means that it should not cost the employer more than a de minimis amount.
That of course does not always make companies’ job any easier, even with the best intentions. They may have to accommodate, for example, both a fundamentalist Christian’s belief that she should have a cross prominently displayed on her desk and an Atheist’s belief that he should not be subjected to sectarian religious symbols. Managing such a conflict while negotiating anti-discrimination statutes can be tricky in the best of times.
As a last note for amateurs of paradox, by prohibiting discrimination against religion, state and federal laws end up often favoring it. This may cause additional conflicts and more headaches for employers. Thus, an employee who follows a vegan diet for religious reasons might receive an accommodation, such as, perhaps, a vegan offering in the company cafeteria if there is one. But one who follows a vegan diet for, say, health or philosophical reasons, may well not receive similar benefits.
In the middle of all those currents, prudent employers will know to seek the advice of a competent attorney.