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Are Christian Religious Beliefs and Practices Dead At Employment?

So I have a heavy topic for you today: Do employers have to accommodate employees who object to serving gay customers based on religious beliefs?

Pretend that you own a bakery. You have an employee who sincerely objects against gay marriage for religious reasons. Your employee refuses to bake a cake for a wedding that will be for a gay couple. Can you fire that employee for refusing to bake the cake? Or must you force the employee to bake the cake? Or must you allow the employee to abstain from baking the cake?

As a practical matter, I think the answer to this question depends in no small part on where you live. A jury in California may think about this in a remarkably different way than a jury in Kentucky.

What is a “reasonable accommodation” for a religious belief is context (and probably culturally) dependent. The recent Abercrombie & Fitch and Hobby Lobby decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court underscore how politically driven religious discrimination decisions can be.

Here’s the law. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “The law requires an employer or other covered entity to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer’s business. This means an employer may be required to make reasonable adjustments to the work environment that will allow an employee to practice his or her religion.”

Protected religious beliefs are not just for people who are part of a recognized, organized religion. Discrimination protection and accommodations also apply to anyone who has “sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs.”

The anti-discrimination laws are meant to broadly protect people who have sincere religious beliefs and practices without requiring them to prove that they belong to a mainstream church.

Religious discrimination claims typically focus on an employer’s requirement to accommodate days or times for worship and modes of dress. For example, employers are more or less required to allow time off for religious holidays, barring extraordinary hardship.

Employees also cannot be forced to participate in employer-sanctioned religious ceremonies. So you can have a Christmas party, but you cannot force employees to celebrate Christmas at the party, for one common example.

Dress codes must accommodate religious dress, prohibitions and hairstyles. For example, Rastafarians must be permitted to keep their dreadlocks. And you cannot prohibit a Jew from wearing a yarmulke.

This is where Abercrombie & Fitch got into trouble recently. They were sued for not allowing female employees to wear head scarfs as that violated their dress policy. In its defense, Abercrombie & Fitch claimed that the head scarf was not stylish and did not compliment their wares, which they had their employees dress in to display. But this is not a good enough reason to prevent an employee from observing a sincere religious belief.

Title VII (and state laws that follow suit) also prevent employers from forcing employees to act in ways that are against their sincere religious, ethical or moral beliefs. So, for example, if it is against a restaurant server’s religion to dance, an employer cannot make her dance as part of her serving duties — even if it is just for a quick Happy Birthday song.

Employers do not have to accommodate religious practices when it causes “undue hardship,” however. The EEOC explains, “An accommodation may cause undue hardship if it is costly, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.”

So this is where context, culture and a jury would come in. Most accommodations decrease workplace efficiency, so what is reasonable and what is undue hardship?

Let’s returning to our reluctant cake baker. Would it be a hardship for the employer to have a different, non-objecting employee bake the cake? Perhaps it depends on staffing and who is available. Perhaps this employee is the only employee capable of making fondant. Or perhaps there are ten other bakers who could easily do it.

If it is possible for the employer to not require the employee to do something against their sincerely held moral beliefs, it may be better to put a different worker on the task.

If the employer cannot, he may be justified in forcing the employee to comply, on pain of termination.

I am certain that a typical California jury would be unsympathetic to the employee in this situation — although I can conceive of a jury make up in some places in California where this would not be certain. I would also be less certain in Missouri, where feelings about gay marriage are more varied. So this is why I would say that the answer of what is reasonable and required, versus what is “undue hardship” somewhat depends on where you are at in the country.

An even trickier question is whether accommodating the employee’s beliefs results in an actionable discrimination against the customer, creating liability for the employer. If the employee forces the business to get sued for discrimination by a customer, that is surely an undue hardship.

For example, what happens if the objecting baker tells the customer that they refuse to bake the cake? Or worse, what if the employee begins proselytizing to the customer in a way that becomes offensive (or even considered “hate speech”)? Will the customer sue the bakery for the employee’s behavior?

In most situations where an employee creates a liability for the employer, you can expect the employee to get fired legally. For instance, here’s a true story: a big retailer was told by a customer that she did not want a black delivery driver to deliver her purchase. The manager acquiesced and went to send a white delivery driver. But unfortunately, he told both the white and black drivers why he made the change. Both employees refused to go along and complained to HR about the manager’s decision. The manager was fired and the customer’s order cancelled. Because that manager’s decision put the company at risk for a lawsuit by two employees, the firing was justified.

When it comes to what is required to accommodate religious employees, there is no concrete answer for employers. And with the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell, there will be a rise in “conscientious objectors” within the wedding industry.

My advice to employers is to try and accommodate your religious employees as much as possible, without putting your business at risk by inviting suits from customers or making it impossible to operate.

Alicia Dearn

Alicia Dearn

CEO + Trial Lawyer at Bellatrix PC
Ms. Dearn gives sharp and insightful legal counsel to entrepreneurs and employers so they can advance their businesses fearlessly. She fixes legal problems.
Alicia Dearn