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Knowledge, training key to avoiding religious discrimination claims


Knowledge of the law and good training of supervisors and managers can defuse many situations that lead to religious discrimination claims.

“Take lessons (in) walking the tightrope. The best thing an employer can do is be neutral when it comes to religion and not foster an environment in which employees suffer a hostile workplace because they do not share the religious convictions of their co-workers,” said Jeffrey I. Pasek, a member of Cozen O'Connor P.C. in Philadelphia.

“It starts with an understanding of what the law requires,” said Ron Chapman Jr., a shareholder with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart P.C. in Dallas. “It's not just an obligation to not discriminate, but it also includes an affirmative obligation to provide reasonable accommodation in some situations,” he said.

“Companies, for example, should be including this topic in their training of supervisors, so that supervisors can recognize when a potential religious accommodation exists.” Then they can consult with human resources or in-house counsel “to make sure they're handling the situation correctly,” Mr. Chapman said.

“There's no magic bullet,” said Samuel J. Cordes, a plaintiff attorney with Samuel J. Cordes & Associates in Pittsburgh. Employers should follow the law in accommodating religious-related worker requests, he said.

He pointed to a situation in which an employee who wants Sunday off for religious reasons and suggests a co-worker who is willing to work that day, but the employer says, “No. If I do it for you, I have to do it for everybody.” Employers tend to “go a little overboard” in refusing such requests, said Mr. Cordes. “They need to understand the spirit of these laws” and not force people to choose between their god and their job.

“These laws aren't complex,” Mr. Cordes said. If “someone asks for a reasonable accommodation, you do it. I can't think of any situation where someone's religion should be playing any role” in whether they are hired or fired. “Larger employers need to make sure their lower-level people get that message,” he said.

Some observers suggest addressing religious discrimination may be more neglected than sexual discrimination, particularly in firms' training and written policies.

“Historically, employers have spent a fair amount of time and been quite sophisticated about sexual harassment training of both managers and employees,” said Amy L. Bess, ashareholder with Vedder Price P.C. in Washington. However, “Employers need to be focused on all aspects of discrimination,” including religious discrimination, when rolling out training programs.

Diana L. Hoover, a partner with Hoover Kernell L.L.P. in Houston, said employers should “go back and look at their written policies, because most employers have well-written or substantial sexual harassment discrimination policies because that's always been the big push.” But they may have only a “little blurb” that says “do not discriminate on any other basis” to address other forms of bias, she added.

“I think they need to go back and look at that, and analyze: Do our front-line supervisors understand what it means to discriminate on a religious basis, and do we have confidence that our supervisors who do the scheduling, or manage decisions about dress codes, understand and know what their obligations are as it pertains to claims for meeting religious obligations?” Ms. Hoover said.

Philip K. Miles III, an associate with McQuaide Blasko in State College, Pa., said employers “need to understand they have an obligation to engage in the interactive process with employees who seek accommodation for their religion.” While most employers are aware they have such an obligation with respect to disability, they “may not be quite as aware, or don't have, a process to handle religious accommodations,” he said.

Employers also need to be vigilant and act promptly “when they see any sign of religious intolerance in the workplace” because “it's not the kind of thing that's going to go away on its own,” Ms. Bess said.

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