Strictly Business

Wednesday, Nov 28 2012 12:00 PM

ROBIN PAGGI: Avoid religious discrimination in workplace

BY ROBIN PAGGI Contributing columnist

December brings with it many religious celebrations. In addition to Christmas, there is Bodhi Day celebrated by Buddhists, Hanukkah celebrated by Jews, the Day of the Return of the Wandering Goddess celebrated by followers of Kemetic Orthodoxy, and Yule celebrated by Wiccans and some other Neopagans, just to name a few, says www.religioustolerance.org.

Employers need not be familiar with every type of religious celebration that their employees could possibly engage in. However, they do need to be familiar with what constitutes religious discrimination in the workplace, especially because claims against employers are on the rise. In the first part of this three-part series, we'll look at the definition of religion according to federal and state law and what is considered to be religious discrimination.

Religion is a protected characteristic under federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and state law (California's Fair Employment and Housing Act, or FEHA), which means that employers may not legally discriminate against applicants or employees because of their religious beliefs or lack thereof (except if the employer is a religious organization). Both laws protect people associated with traditionally recognized religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism as well as those who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs.

However, just because an employee sincerely believes in something doesn't necessarily make it a religion. For example, an employee who was fired for eating Kozy Kitten Cat Food at work claimed he was discriminated against for his "personal religious creed" that required him to eat the cat food and filed an action against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the federal agency that is responsible for enforcing Title VII) for not pursuing his religious discrimination claims against his former employer. The court that heard the case (Brown v. Pena) decided in favor of the EEOC, saying the employee's belief was a "mere personal preference" and not a religion, according to The American Law Institute Continuing Legal Education website.

Additionally, the laws protect applicants and employees from discrimination because of their lack of religious beliefs. For example, in the case of Noyes v. Kelly Services, the employee claimed that she was denied a promotion because she did not share the same religious beliefs as her supervisor (the co-worker who received the promotion belonged to the same church as the supervisor). The employee had worked at Kelly Services six years longer than the co-worker and held a master's degree in business administration, which the co-worker did not. Additionally, the employee pointed out that four out of five recent management promotions were given to co-workers who also belonged to the same church as the supervisor. A federal jury in Sacramento awarded her $6.5 million for reverse religious discrimination, according to hr.blr.com, a guide for human resources professionals.

So, what is religious discrimination? According to the EEOC, it involves:

* Treating applicants or employees unfavorably because of their religious beliefs. It can also involve treating someone differently because that person is married to (or associated with) a person of a particular religion or because of a connection with a religious organization or group.

* Making employment decisions, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment because of religious beliefs.

* Harassing someone because of religion (for example, making offensive remarks about a person's religious beliefs or practices).

* Segregating an employee because of religion (for example, assigning him or her to a non-customer contact position).

* Failing to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices.

We'll address reasonable accommodations in part two of this series.

Robin Paggi is the Training Coordinator at Worklogic HR Legal Solutions. She can be reached at rpaggi@worklogiclegal.com. These are her opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.

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