A reader writes:
A husband of a friend of mine received this email from his workplace:
“You have the opportunity to attend a Retreat at ____ Church, on Friday from 9 am-4 pm. It will be a day guided by Father ____, on finding Peace and God with your fellow colleagues in the workplace. Continental breakfast and lunch will be served. If you would like to attend, this will be a paid day. If you choose not to attend, we will try to accommodate you by opening the corporate office. (This will be based on attendance) Please respond by email to Mary and myself if you will be attending or not. Response needed, no later than 3 pm Monday.
The warehouse will be CLOSED on Friday, regardless of attendance. Warehouse will be open until 7 pm, on Thursday and reopen on Saturday from 9 am – 1 pm.”
My friend’s husband doesn’t want to go, despite being nominally religious. He normally works in the warehouse on Friday, so he can’t go in. If he works the extra hour on Thursday and from 9-1 on Saturday, he will be working an hour less than he normally would if he was in the warehouse on Friday. Is this legal? We are all split on this (but all agree it’s completely absurd). The company has 40 employees, and is located in Michigan.
Agggh. Hello, religion inappropriately injected into the workplace.
It sounds like it raises some legal issues to me (you’re being denied hours for not participating in a religious service), but I wanted an actual lawyer’s take, so I checked with Eric Stevens of Littler Mendelson. Here’s what he said:
“Employers with 15 or more employees are subject to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, among other things, prohibits discrimination and harassment based on religion. In and of itself, an employer communicating about a religious event, or espousing personal religious beliefs is not, per se, illegal. However, employers must be conscious of the fact that when company owners or supervisors show preference to a religious belief, there is an implicit threat from the authority that comes from their position, even if that threat is not intended. In the example posed, the employer has likely crossed the line from allowing the respectful expression and practice of religion to unwelcome proselytizing, which must be avoided in the workplace.
The employer is providing both a financial incentive (in the form of a paid day off) to employees to attend and a financial penalty (in the form of reduced and altered paid work hours) to employees who choose not to attend. By doing so, the employer is affecting the terms and conditions of employment based on the employees’ willingness to engage in the employer’s preferred religious practice. To the extent employees refuse to participate and suffer negative consequences sufficient to constitute an adverse action, the employer will be deemed to have engaged in discrimination because of religion in violation of Title VII. Additionally, by requiring employees to identify themselves as either participating or not participating, the employer could be contributing to a hostile work environment on the basis of religion. While this one event alone would not likely be actionable as creating a hostile environment, continuing such a practice could likely result in a hostile environment claim.
Claims of religious discrimination are investigated by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, in this context, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.”
If your friend’s husband is up for it, he could follow my basic advice for asserting your legal rights at work and start from the assumption that the employer doesn’t realize that there’s a legal problem, and that he is courteously bringing it to their attention. This stance will usually get you a better outcome because it creates the chance to handle it in a non-adversarial way . In this case, I’d say something like this: “I’m concerned that we’re on shaky legal ground in providing a paid day off to employees who attend a religious service and not to others, and in reducing the paid work hours for the week for those who prefer not to attend. I don’t want us to get in trouble. Would it be possible to ensure that those who choose not to attend receive their normal pay for the week?”
And really, employers — your captive audience of employees who depend on you for their livelihood is not an appropriate target for religious proselytizing.