Maintaining a religious-neutral workplace

published in McAfee & Taft EmployerLINC | January 28, 2014

By Charles S. Plumb

About a year ago, a group of private citizens paid for a seven-foot-tall granite monument of the Ten Commandments and gained approval for it to be placed on the north end of the Oklahoma Capitol grounds. Not surprisingly, a Satanic group then asked Oklahoma’s Capitol Preservation Commission for permission to erect a seven-foot-tall “homage” to the Prince of Darkness, and a Hindu organization applied to have a monkey god statue join the growing list of Oklahoma statehouse religious monuments. Most recently, the Pastafarians — people who follow the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — have asked how they can apply for a spot for their statue on Oklahoma’s Capitol grounds. I’m serious.

religious-neutral-workplaceWhat does this have to do with your workplace? Hopefully, nothing; but it serves as a good reminder about the potential curveballs an employer can face when religious issues gain prominence at work.

Title VII and Oklahoma’s comparable state law prevent employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their religious beliefs. For purposes of these laws, “religion” is defined very broadly and covers a wide range of faiths. The prohibition against religious discrimination also protects employees who have no religious beliefs, such as atheists. In addition to precluding employers from discriminating against applicants and employees based upon an individual’s religious beliefs, employees are protected against religious harassment in the workplace. Employers may not impose religious demands upon their workforce, and employees are protected against unwelcome religious intrusions or proselytizing by their employer or by co-workers. That’s why employer-sponsored or approved religious symbols at work can be a problem.

Do you intend to pick and choose which religions are deserving of recognition in your workplace? Or would you like to find yourself in the same place as the Oklahoma statehouse – deluged with requests from a variety of faith-based groups asking for equal time at work? Religious beliefs are prone to generate strong feelings. Religious symbols at the office can result in work-time arguments and confrontations.

Nothing rocks my taste buds like linguine in red clam sauce, but an employer has better things to do than argue with a Pastafarian employee about their right to hang a framed picture of the Flying Spaghetti Monster next to a depiction of the Last Supper in the break room. Here are some suggested guidelines, when it comes to workplace religious symbols:

  • Treat all faiths with respect.
  • Don’t sponsor or approve religious symbols in the workplace.
  • If it becomes an issue, explain to employees that you respect all faiths, but religious beliefs should be shared and debated outside of work and you are committed to maintaining a religion-neutral workplace.