Religious Employees Assert Rights in the Workplace

PAMELA Rodriguez was in tears. A ''born-again'' Christian who is a social worker in Los Angeles, Ms. Rodriguez was asked by a welfare client for a voucher to fund an abortion. Feeling she could not participate, Rodriguez lined up two colleagues to issue the voucher instead.

Rodriguez's boss, however, was unsympathetic to her religious concerns. Issue the voucher, she told her, or face disciplinary action. She did so - but also filed suit against Los Angeles County for religious discrimination.

The Rodriguez suit is one of a growing number of religious-discrimination claims arising in the workplace.

The trend is being driven in part by an increasing desire among workers to pray quietly, request religious holidays, and keep religious literature at the office - as well as a growing awareness of their rights to do so.

Recent cases range from a pizza delivery woman fired because she would not give up her Sunday school class to a prison teacher let go for keeping a Bible on his desk. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington reports a 31 percent increase in religious-discrimination complaints since 1990 as employees and employers add religious issues to the more familiar areas of race and gender discrimination. Yet Congress, the courts, and federal agencies are facing an area of civil rights law that is still quite unclear.

Workplace issues are not a main focus of the conservative religious liberty movement in America, which has concentrated on overturning laws and Supreme Court decisions concerning abortion, and the separation of church and state.

By contrast, evangelicals, religious liberals, and Jewish and Muslim groups are becoming more assertive on workplace rights, and have championed anti-discrimination and religious accommodation laws.

The Sabbath day

Time off for Sabbath, or religious holidays, tops the list of employee grievances. Under current law, an employer does not have to accommodate an employee's religious plea if doing so creates an ''undue hardship'' for the business. What persons of faith are discovering, however, is that an employer must ''prove'' such hardship.

''If an employer just comes out and says 'Sorry, we have a policy about the Sabbath,' that is not compliance,'' says Richard Foltin of the American Jewish Committee in Washington.

A greater awareness of civil rights, rather than an increase in discrimination, is bringing out the devout, say advocates. Many cases are now settled by mediation, says Ann-Marie Amiel of the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Va., which offers legal assistance to religious groups.

''Religious employees haven't realized until now that they have the same rights as the non-religious employee,'' she says.

The trend was given a push by a recent out-of-court religious discrimination settlement by Wal-Mart, one of the nation's largest employers. The Arkansas-based firm and other retailers have started religious sensitivity training for management in the wake of the Wal-Mart worker's suit.

Still, broader social tensions between the conservative religious movement and liberal secular trends also feed the claims.

''As government agendas like abortion and gay rights continue,'' says Benjamin Bull, Rodriguez's attorney at the American Center for Law and Justice in Phoenix, Ariz., ''they are on a collision course with people who have sincerely held religious beliefs.''

Most workplace cases fall under Title VII of the EEOC, which prohibits discrimination. The recent Religious Freedom Restoration Act is also invoked.

RFRA, passed by Congress in 1993, carves out some legal protections for the practice of faith. Rodriguez is suing Los Angeles under both Title VII and RFRA.

The great problem, however, is the lack of clarity in what constitutes discrimination or harassment. Under Title VII an employer can't fire, discipline, or refuse to hire an evangelical Christian, for example, who wants to pass out literature. At the same time, an employer must protect those in the firm who are not religious.

So far, the only attempt by a federal agency to write guidelines defining discrimination failed. Last year the EEOC issued guidelines so broad they were misconstrued and subsequently withdrawn.

Conflicting signals on rights

The courts have sent out a spray of conflicting rulings on religious rights at work.

On Oct. 5, for example, the Oregon Supreme Court found that the owner of an Oregon housepainting business, who allegedly invited an employee to church twice a week for a year, was not guilty of religious harassment. But a Pennsylvania appellate court recently told an employer who included Bible stories in the company newsletter to stop, charging harassment.

Sabbath observance rulings are also in conflict. A Chicago court this year overruled an employer who denied a Jewish employee a day off to observe Yom Kippur. But the US Supreme Court decided not to take two Sabbath cases that upheld employers' right to deny a Sabbath day off.

University of Texas constitutional expert Douglas Laycock says most of discrimination laws under Title VII are fairly settled. ''The laws are on the books, and the court does not want to take on a whole new area of religious interpretation.''

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