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LEGAL ISSUES

Religious Discrimination Complaints On the Rise at Work

The EEOC is getting 'very aggressive in its investigations,' says one lawyer. Here's what you can do to protect yourself.

Complaints of religious discrimination at work have increased 87 percent in the past decade – more than four times the increase of any other type of complaint, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In September, the EEOC sued Lawrence Transportation Systems, saying the Virginia moving company refused to hire a veteran mover who is Rastafarian because he wouldn't cut his dreadlocks for religious reasons. In another Virginia case, veteran local television meteorologist Jon Cash filed an EEOC complaint against WAVY-TV, claiming the station fired him after he announced during a sermon that he would pursue his Christian ministry full-time starting in the summer of 2011. (Cash says the station manager told him the news was "bad for business.")

And a Muslim saleswoman from Philadelphia who was fired for refusing to remove her religious head scarf was offered her job back on Tuesday after filing a complaint with the EEOC. Khadijah Campbell, 23, who worked at Philadelphia's Bare Feet Shoes, also will be reimbursed for lost wages. However, she won't take the job back: "I normally have tough skin, but I'm very sensitive when it comes to my religion. The whole thing was very embarrassing," Campbell told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "This is America, not a third-world country."

Complaints from Muslims nearly tripled in the past decade and now account for nearly one-quarter of the anti-religious accusations.

What's more, the EEOC is getting "very aggressive in its investigations," Nigel Telman, head of the labor and employment group in law firm Proskauer Rose's Chicago office, told the Society for Human Resources Management. "I certainly expect to see employees filing more charges of discrimination, including possibly those involving ‘reverse' religious discrimination [such as feeling harassed by a company prayer circle], in the near future,' Telman said. 
 
Wondering how to handle religious requests? Employment lawyer Arlene Klinedinst of Virginia's Vandeventer Black advises trying to accommodate requests for time off for holy days or a place to pray during the day – especially if you allow coffee or other types of breaks. Ditto for using the conference room for prayer meetings, as long as no workers feel forced to attend. Employees should be allowed to wear crucifixes or religious headcoverings unless they're a safety hazard, Klinedinst told The Virginian Pilot newspaper.

Expressions of religion at work – whether from an employee, supervisor, company owner, or even a customer -- are a tricky line to walk because an employee could claim harassment or discrimination from any one of them.

"It's often a very fine line," says Denise Cline, an employment lawyer in the Raleigh, N.C., office of law firm Smith Moore Leatherwood. "Regularly conducting a morning prayer might not be enough to warrant a claim of religious harassment from an employee. But regularly e-mailing or lecturing an employee about their faith or lack of it—especially by a manager—can land a company in hot water."

Recommendations from the EEOC itself include training managers to gauge the disruption posed by religious expression "rather than merely speculating that disruption may result." The agency also suggests incorporating a discussion of religious expression – and the need for all employees to be sensitive to the beliefs or non-beliefs of others – into anti-harassment training for managers and employees. (Don't have harassment policy or training? Click here for help.)

How do you accommodate religious requests? Join the discussion at Ask Inc.

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Last updated: Oct 20, 2010

COURTNEY RUBIN

Inc. contributing editor Courtney Rubin was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.




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