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Religious discrimination claims in the workplace rising

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Religious discrimination claims in the workplace rising

Religious discrimination claims in the workplace are on the rise and expected to be a growing problem for employers, which experts say reflects a rise in religious rhetoric and better employee knowledge of their rights.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says there were 4,151 religious discrimination claims filed with the agency during fiscal 2011, a 9.5% increase from the previous year. Such claims have increased steadily since 2005.

While many of these claims are motivated by perceived anti-Muslim bias, adherents of other religions claim bias, too (see related story).

Observers say two of the biggest issues with regard to religious discrimination claims are accommodations for taking time off for the Sabbath and garb issues, such as Muslim women's requests to wear head coverings.

Steps employers can take to address the issue include developing a more tolerant environment and improved training, say observers (see story, page 18).

Many observers say they expect the number of religious discrimination claims will continue to increase.

“We have a growing willingness of people to carry their faith into the workplace, and we see that reflected in employees who are seeking accommodations to engage in religious practices at work,” said Jeffrey I. Pasek, a member of law firm Cozen O'Connor P.C. in Philadelphia. Some employees “are using their workplace as a way to propagate their beliefs, proselytize,” while other employees “just want to be left alone.”

Add to that a rise in religious fundamentalism, “which we see all around the world, that causes people to be less tolerant of other religions,” Mr. Pasek said, and “the increasing number of religions in the United States,” the variations within different sects and “growing media attention to intergroup conflict post-9/11, and you can see why” the number of religious discrimination charges has more than doubled from 1997, he said.

Samuel J. Cordes, a plaintiffs attorney with Samuel J. Cordes & Associates in Pittsburgh, said people have the attitude that “times are tough, and sometimes you have to give up your religion when times are tough,” although “clearly the laws are supposed to protect against that kind of thought.”

The increased religious discrimination claims are “just a reflection of the growing religious diversity that exists in this country and the workplace,” said Ron Chapman Jr., a shareholder with law firm Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart P.C. in Dallas. Religious groups “are becoming more cognizant about their rights and more vocal about asserting those rights,” he said.

Employers “are more savvy about what their rights are and more aware” of where they can seek an accommodation, “so they tend to look for opportunities” where they can do so, said Diana L. Hoover, a partner with Hoover Kernell L.L.P. in Houston.

It's possible, she said, that some employers are unaware of their need to accommodate employees on a religious basis.

“There's been so much publicized about sexual harassment and sex and racial harassment and discrimination and even age” discrimination, but “I don't know that there's been a similar focus” on religious discrimination in the workplace, she said.

In addition, religious rhetoric in the U.S. presidential campaign may have become another factor as political developments become topics of discussion on the job, some observers say.

“Anytime you have the kind of rhetoric that we've seen on both sides—Democrats and Republicans proclaiming their strong religious beliefs—it does lead those who don't fall within those same religious beliefs to wonder if they're being excluded,” said Gregory V. Murray, vp at Vercruysse Murray & Calzone P.C. in Bingham Farms, Mich.

Many employers are being faced with situations where an employee might want to start a Bible study group and use a conference room, Ms. Hoover said, “and employers start questioning, "Do I have to do that?'” The political environment “has encouraged people to be more vocal about their religion and to raise it up, and I think employers are behind the curve in understanding what their duties are in that kind of situation,” she said.

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Ms. Hoover said her firm's clients include retailers that are open seven days a week, raising the issue of dealing with workers who want Friday and Saturday off, which could be their busiest days,” so they “are having to adjust to the idea they may have to accommodate,” such workers.

Other issues that may arise include grooming, including the length of beards and hair; religious requirements to wear religious symbols, which may clash with employers' dress policies; the need to take prayer breaks during the workday; and pharmacy employees who say they are not allowed to assist anyone in obtaining birth control.

Muslim women want to wear headgear ranging from scarves to full burqas “and still claim their rightful place in the workplace” and equal opportunity, “even though it's off-putting to a lot of business customers,” Mr. Pasek said. “But we also see people who are coming into work bringing Bibles, and trying to use their workplace interactions to proselytize, from the person in the next cubicle who plays religious music to the lunchroom lady who serves them mashed potatoes, with "Have a blessed day.'”

Mr. Chapman said accommodating religious requests “puts employers in a very tough spot” because they have to comply with religious accommodations while still running their business.

There also is “the danger of a backlash” from other employees who resent the special treatment they perceive these workers are getting, Mr. Chapman said.

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