A Legal Reminder: There’s No Mandate For a Religiously Neutral Workplace

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By Eric B. Meyer

Christian employee + Ramadan bagel party = hostile work environment?

Yep, someone — represented by a licensed, practicing attorney — brought this lawsuit.

Let’s take you back to August, 2010. David Ross, the plaintiff, attended a meeting of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Staff Bridge Unit Leaders, where the annual employee appreciation luncheon was discussed.

Mo bagels, mo problems

During the meeting, another employee noted that the luncheon was scheduled during the observance of Ramadan and requested that the luncheon be rescheduled so that one of his subordinate employees, Ali Harajli, an observant Muslim, could attend. An alternative date was proposed and approved by Mr. Ross’s supervisor.

The next month, in an effort to include co-workers and promote cultural diversity in the workplace, Mr. Haraji forwarded an email to Mr. Ross, asking that he invite the Staff Bridge Unit employees to have bagels and cream cheese with employees who are celebrating the end of Ramadan. Mr. Ross refused to forward the invitation. Instead, he informed his supervisor that the luncheon was against his religious beliefs, “seriously inappropriate,” “proselytizing” (more on this later), and promoted Ramadan as “the top religion of staff bridge.”

Upon learning of Mr. Ross’s concern with the supposed religious overtones of the bagel event, Mr. Haraji emailed all Staff Bridge employees, telling them “[f]eel free not to attend if your faith prohibits you from sharing the goodies provided by fellow employees in celebrating their holiday. We do not have any sensitivity regarding participating in occasions celebrated by others.”

HR gets involved

This email prompted HR to get involved and advise all employees that hosting activities with specific religious connotations was considered inappropriate.

In November, Mr. Haraji sent a more generic email to the Staff Bridge Unit employees inviting them to share bagels and cream cheese “[a]s part of our annual treat to staff Bridge.” However, believing that this get-together was just another excuse to celebrate the end of Ramadan, Mr. Ross complained that “this methodology to promote Islam has been common for well over 1000 years, and any organization briefed by Homeland Security is aware of these subtle yet pervasive methods.”

What followed was a charge of discrimination in which, among other things, Mr. Ross claimed that he had been subjected to a hostile work environment because his employer permitted and promoted Muslim religious observances and traditions, rather than maintaining a religiously neutral work environment.

Bagels + Ramadan do not = a hostile work environment

To establish that he was subjected to a hostile work environment, a plaintiff must prove that an objective person, in his shoes, would find that the workplace was permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult that was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment.

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Had we been dealing with day-old oat bran bagels and a schmear of moldy salmon cream cheese, maybe we’d be on to something here. But under the facts of this case, not so much. Here is how the court explained it (opinion here):

Plaintiff does not suggest, and there is no evidence, that anyone at CDOT ever disparaged Christianity generally or him personally because of his religious beliefs….[Plus] there is no evidence suggesting that plaintiff was subjected to a constant barrage of references to Islam or requests to accommodate Muslim employees’ religious beliefs.”

Now, I mentioned above that I would discuss proselytizing, i.e., an effort to convert someone to a particular religion. Proselytizing is not prohibited per se in the workplace. However, if an employee’s proselytizing interferes with work, the employer does not have to allow it. Plus, an employer can restrict religious expression where it would cause customers or co-workers reasonably to perceive the materials to express the employer’s own message, or where the item or message in question is harassing or otherwise disruptive.

No mandate for a religiously neutral work environment

Was Mr. Ross subjected to proselytizing? Nope:

Plaintiff did not attend either of the bagel breakfasts, and there is no other evidence suggesting that those events involved any form of proselytization. Nothing other than plaintiff’s own ipse dixit supports his otherwise unsubstantiated belief that the mere fact of inviting others to share food around the end of Ramadan constitutes an attempt to “indoctrinate non-Muslims into the religious customs of Islam.”

Employers should be aware that, while Title VII protects workers from religious discrimination, it does not mandate a completely religiously neutral work environment.

So, get in the holiday spirit. Put up the Christmas tree, light the menorah, embrace diversity.

Just don’t jam it down your employee’s throats.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

You know that scientist in the action movie who has all the right answers if only the government would just pay attention? Eric B. Meyer, Esq. gets companies HR-compliant before the action sequence. Serving clients nationwide, Eric is a Partner at FisherBroyles, LLP, which is the largest full-service, cloud-based law firm in the world, with approximately 210 attorneys in 21 offices nationwide. Eric is also a volunteer EEOC mediator, a paid private mediator, and publisher of The Employer Handbook (www.TheEmployerHandbook.com), which is pretty much the best employment law blog ever. That, and he's been quoted in the British tabloids. #Bucketlist.


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