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When Religious Beliefs Conflict With Anti-Harassment Policies

Posted Tuesday, May 21, 2019 6:25 am

Recently, much focus has been placed on the importance of implementing effective diversity, inclusion, and anti-harassment policies.  But what happens when an employee’s religious beliefs conflict with these policies?  This issue arose in a recent case in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, Brennan v. Deluxe Corporation, and was also addressed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004 in Peterson v. Hewlett Packard Co.

Brennan v. Deluxe

Frederick Brennan was a software engineer employed by Deluxe Corporation.  Deluxe required employees to take an online, multiple-choice ethics compliance course.  One of the questions on the test was about a hypothetical transgender employee, “Alex,” who was transitioning from male to female.  The question asked:  “Which of Alex’s coworkers’ behavior would likely constitute harassment?”  Brennan alleged that the answer the test viewed as “correct” contradicted his Christian beliefs that a person born a male should be referred to as “he.”  The test would not let him skip the question, nor allow him to continue to the next question without selecting the “correct” answer.

Brennan complained to HR that he found some of the questions “offensive and discriminatory towards [his] faith in God.”  The HR manager responded that the course “was designed to reflect our policy of inclusiveness and non-discrimination,” that Deluxe did “not expect you to change your values or beliefs but rather, as an employee, your behaviors at work are expected to uphold Deluxe’s standards and values.”  Deluxe denied Brennan’s request to be excused from completing the course, reduced his salary by 1% for failing to complete the course, and a few months later, terminated him.  Brennan sued, alleging, among other claims, failure to accommodate his religious beliefs.

Failure to Accommodate Religious Beliefs

Noting that “an employer has a statutory obligation to make a reasonable accommodation for the religious observances of its employees, short of incurring an undue hardship,” the Court determined that Brennan satisfactorily alleged the elements of a failure-to-accommodate claim:

  1. Brennan alleged that he held a bona fide belief that prevented him from responding to the transgender question in the manner Deluxe required;
  2. Brennan informed Deluxe of his belief; and
  3. Deluxe disciplined Brennan for failing to complete the course.

Deluxe responded to Brennan’s allegations by arguing that excusing Brennan from the course would have been unduly burdensome because an employer’s duty to provide a reasonable accommodation does not require an employer to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs if it would result in discrimination against his coworkers and infringe on their rights.

The Court, noting that the case was not at the appropriate stage to decide the merits of Deluxe’s unduly burdensome defense, allowed Brennan’s case to proceed.

Although the court did not provide an answer to the conflict raised in this case, the Ninth Circuit discussed a similar issue in Peterson v. Hewlett Packard Co.

Ninth Circuit Peterson Case

In Peterson, Hewlett Packard (“HP”) displayed posters promoting diversity, which included gay employees.  Peterson responded by posting Bible verses condemning homosexuality in his cubicle where people could see them as they passed.  His supervisor removed the Bible verses because they violated HP’s policy prohibiting harassment.  Peterson and his managers met on multiple occasions to try to come to an agreement, but Peterson refused to stop posting the Bible verses unless HP stopped displaying the posters.  Peterson was terminated for insubordination, and he sued.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found in favor of HP on the failure-to-accommodate claim, holding that “the only accommodations that Peterson was willing to accept would have imposed undue hardship upon Hewlett-Packard.”  According to the Court, HP was not required to permit Peterson to continue posting harassing messages, nor was it required to exclude sexual orientation from its workplace diversity program.  The Court noted that “an employer need not accommodate an employee's religious beliefs if doing so would result in discrimination against his co-workers or deprive them of contractual or other statutory rights.”

According to the Court, it was evident that Peterson “was discharged, not because of his religious beliefs, but because he violated the company’s harassment policy by attempting to generate a hostile and intolerant work environment and because he was insubordinate.”

Takeaway

Employers should be aware that some employees’ religious beliefs could be in conflict with company policies.  Front-line managers must be appropriately trained to carefully consider any such conflicts and be open to discussions about accommodations.  Employers faced with a situation similar to Brennan or Peterson should be sure to focus on the employee’s actions and whether such actions comply with company policies as opposed to focusing on an employee’s beliefs.

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