Don’t be religious at work unless your work is religious

Doesn’t that sound sensible? I think that sounds sensible.

Sadly, it isn’t all that easy a guideline to follow in a world with so many religions, some of which requiring the followers follow incredibly strict dress codes and behaviour rules like mandatory prayer breaks five times a day, or avoiding certain foods at all times or fasting for weeks on end. Dealing with religion in the workplace can be tricky business, as those who study law and ethics are quick to point out.

Attorney Chad Wilson, who teaches applied ethics at UT, said the issue of religion in the workplace is almost a footnote in law school, but surprisingly is still evolving under the law.

Most of the laws protecting workers against religious harassment in the workplace stem from federal legislation passed in 1960s and ’70s, including Title VII. The laws apply on a state and local level and are not restricted to “established” religions, he said.

Most managers believe the way to avoid discrimination charges is to treat everyone in the workplace equally. While this may be possible in a homogeneous environment, sometimes it isn’t possible in the modern workplace, according to Wilson.

“Sometimes treating everyone equally means treating some people differently,” he said.

Like making room in the uniform codes for turbans or other head coverings, for example. Compromise winds up being the buzz word, but some employees and employers are more willing than others to yield. I thought there was news more recent than January about this, but I was reminded of a Christian Justice of the Peace here in Saskatchewan who was trying to claim his religious beliefs trumped the right gays had to get married and refused to do it. It’s since been deemed unconstitutional for Saskatchewan marriage commissioners to opt out of providing those services on religious grounds.

Justice Gene Anne Smith, writing a second decision for the court, noted the argument put forward by the religious commissioners could be claimed by those who sell marriage licences or rent halls for weddings.

“But more than this, it could just as easily, and with as much validity, be made by those who provide rental living accommodation to married couples [was tried by a landlord in Yellowknife a couple years ago], and even those who provide restaurant meals or entertainment to the public.

“The desire of individuals providing these services to the public to withhold the service from same-sex couples, on grounds of religious disapproval of same-sex relationships, is hardly restricted to marriage commissioners . . . It is fair to ask, then, why it is particularly important to accommodate marriage commissioners’ religious beliefs in this respect.”

Of course people have the right to follow their religions to the letter and believe whatever they have to believe in order to follow them. But when those rights are impeding on the rights of others, that’s where problems crop up – especially when someone tries to claim their rights are “more right” than the other person’s.

Knox County Law Director Joe Jarret said private and public sector managers have good reason to keep pace with changing standards associated with religious discrimination claims. Most of the laws protecting against religious discrimination are federal and carry large penalties.

Jarret cautioned against trying to make value judgments about any particular faith.

“Employers get in trouble when they question the sincerity of another’s faith,” he said.

As far as the law is concerned, practices including voodoo and Santeria are legitimate religious beliefs. Atheism is considered a form of belief and is protected, too, he said.

Jarret urged employers to try to understand and educate themselves on the variety of religions that might be found in the workplace.

Take that, American military! Atheists are soldiers, too! There shouldn’t be mandatory religious service or bibles passed out upon entry or rock concerts with a solid Christian edge or bible verses on gun sights or anything of that nature.

The article briefly notes religious schools and hospitals where the work is guided by faith-based mission statements. To me, it seems they’re in a different category in terms of this issue and I think they wind up having more rights to be discriminatory than they probably should. I’ve heard that Catholic schools would prefer to only hire Catholics who aren’t practicing gays and church-run hospitals still want the right to refuse to do abortions and other things they disagree with on bible-based grounds. I don’t think that’s at all right, but so long as other schools and hospitals are within easy reach, at least the general public isn’t forced to comply with those absurd restrictions.

There’s a big difference, though, between employers allowing for turbans and employers asking for crosses to be removed for safety purposes. The RCMP couldn’t discriminate against Sikhs by insisting only their official officer cap should be worn. Shirley Chaplin was offered a different position in the hospital, a valid option for employers according to the article. If the clothing or accoutrements will get in the way of doing business, change the way those people do the business. If it’s going to make no difference, just adapt practices and move on.

Personally, I’m glad I don’t have to be the one who worries about this type of thing. I just get to go to work, do my job, and go home again. Three cheers for manual labour…

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1 Response to Don’t be religious at work unless your work is religious

  1. tmso says:

    Religion in the workplace is a sticky one, and so is atheism in the work place (note to self: quit telling everyone I’m an atheist whenever religion is brought up – just walk away, walk away…).

    But yes, like you, most of the time I just show up to work, do my thing in whatever I decide to wear for the day, and go home. There’s not much of a dress code here (business casual) so pretty much anything goes within reason. I’m not sure what it would be like to work some place that requires a uniform, but at some point, an employee with religious “requirements” should be aware that the job they are hired for usually doesn’t include making allowances for their religion (or lack of it).

    If I get a job at a religious institution teaching something, then shouldn’t I expect they might ask me to teach something my atheist-self might not agree with? Shouldn’t I be aware of that and take that into consideration BEFORE applying for that job?

    I know it’s not always that cut and dry, and in this economy (at least down here in the states), I suppose these sorts of things make it even harder to keep a job before it’s ripped out from under ya, or even get one.

    (sorry for the rambling, not sure any of that made sense…)

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