As a business owner, have you ever been subjected to an investigation by the civil rights commission in your state as a result of an unfounded complaint of religious discrimination? If so, you are not alone.
While civil rights laws protect employees from unequal treatment, including discrimination, they can sometimes be applied in an overzealous manner to impinge upon the rights of a private business owner. We recently represented a private business owner who found himself in this precise situation.
Accordingly, it is important for both employers and employees to know what their rights are under both federal and state law.
There are several federal laws that prohibit discrimination in the workplace, including Title VII, the Fair Housing Act (FHA), and Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). There are also local and state laws which offer the same protections of – and often more protection – than the federal laws. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigates violations of federal law.
In addition, each state has its own division charged with protecting the civil rights of its residents. State civil rights commissions investigate complaints of discrimination and enforce their state’s civil rights laws.
Often times, both federal and state law will apply. This was certainly true in our client’s case. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution affirms every citizens’ right of free speech and the exercise of religion. The First Amendment provides: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Accordingly, private employers are not required to purge the workplace of all religious activity. And they certainly don’t have to check their religion at the door when they come to work. As one court noted in EEOC v. Townley Engineering & Manufacturing, "Title VII does not, and could not, require individual employers to abandon their religion." Private employers can hold regular devotional or prayer meetings for employees so long as it remains clear to all employees that attendance is never required. See Young v. Sw. Sav. & Loan Ass’n. Further, active participation of management in these meetings does not make them discriminatory. See Brown v. Polk County.
To ensure that employees understand that devotional meetings are voluntary, notice of the meetings should state that they are not mandatory, and it is a good idea to hold these meetings before the work day begins, during breaks, or after work.
Importantly, employers must be careful not to give prospective or current employees the perception that employment or advancement with the company depends on them subscribing to the same religious beliefs as the employer.
This can be accomplished in a number of ways. For instance, applications for employment should state that applicants are considered for all positions without regard to religion. This statement should also be included in any orientation materials, employee handbooks, and employee evaluation forms.
In sum, the government cannot force a private employer to abandon his or her religious beliefs and or religious practices so long as they are conducted in accordance with the legal principles above.
Sometimes you have to fight back, as we successfully did on behalf of our client. Thankfully, that business owner is now free to continue holding prayer meetings at work in full compliance with the law.
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