Proselytizing In The Workplace: Is This Religious Freedom?
Q. When a fervently religious employee wants to express publicly his/her religious beliefs at work, must an employer allow it?
Q. Can a religiously fervent employee speak out at work in opposition to what she/he believes to be the sinful behavior of his/her co-workers?
These interesting hypothetical questions can become reality in today’s workplace. The clash between the exercise of religious freedom and the privacy rights of fellow co-workers is illustrated in two recent cases discussed here.
Prohibiting workplace proselytizing may be risky for an employer. Federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on their religion. And, court decisions illustrate that employers must allow their employees to engage in certain religious observances or practices even if they conflict with the employers’ policies. At the same time, observance of religious freedom need not be accommodated if it would cause undue hardship in the workplace to the employer.
Law At A Glance
Company May Have To Allow:
√ Observance of Religious Practice on Work Hours
√ Wearing Religious Garb
√ Posting or Wearing Religious Statements
Company May Not Allow:
√ E-mails Proselytizing to Co-Workers
√ Handing Out Religious Pamphlets
√ Religious Ceremonies on Company Premises
Proselytizing Via E-mail
In a recent California case, Ng v. Jacobs Engineering Group, the plaintiff, Edna Yuen Man Ng, described herself as an Evangelical Christian, whose religious beliefs compelled her to share those beliefs with her co-workers in order to save them.
The plaintiff sent unsolicited and unauthorized e-mails to co-workers over company computer lines, which invited co-workers to a lunchtime Christmas party in the employer’s (Jacobs) conference room. Co-workers complained. During Easter season, Ms. Ng held another Christian based event in the office; again sending unauthorized e-mail invitations. She also handed out religious pamphlets. The Company had both an e-mail privacy and anti-harassment policies which protected employees from such solicitation. Therefore, Ms. Ng was warned by company management. But, Ms. Ng stated that she would take the risk to “preach the gospel.”
The company then suggested that she hold her meetings off company premises. However, Ms. Ng went ahead with unauthorized weekly prayer meetings at the company, sending e-mail recordings, Biblical scripture and other statements, such as “let’s call out to God for all needs.” Ms. Ng again was warned. However, the next day, Ms. Ng again sent an e-mail over the office system with scripture quotations. Her e-mails continued with more religious themes for three months. She was eventually terminated, but continued to send religious e-mails to employees at the company. Ms. Ng sued Jacobs alleging that Jacobs had failed to accommodate her religious beliefs and terminated her because of her religious practices. Jacobs moved for summary judgment and the trial court granted Jacobs’ motion, finding that Ms. Ng’s proselytizing violated the company’s policies on anti-harassment and e-mail use.
The court observed that there are two kinds of work requirements which employees must observe. There are those defining the particular duties of their position and others defining general policies of the employer, such as anti-harassment and e-mail policies. While employers are required to accommodate religious beliefs, typically, religious accommodation involves observation of holy days, wearing religious garb or wearing religious pronouncements on buttons. Distinguished from those situations are religious practices which impose “personally and directly on fellow employees” -- invading their privacy and criticizing their personal lives.
Ms. Ng’s activities were specifically directed at unwilling co-workers whom she hoped to convert to her religious beliefs. Therefore, she violated reasonable company policies which was wrong.
Q. What if Ms. Ng had restricted her conduct to hanging posters in her work area? Would that have been religious harassment?
A federal court recently was faced with this issue in Powell v. Yellow Book USA, Inc.
Powell, a former employee of Yellow Book USA, Inc., sued the company and a former co-worker for sexual and religious harassment. Powell had started as a data entry processor at the company and was later promoted to a financial services representative. In this new position, she sat next to Ms. Krutz who talked to Powell about Ms. Krutz’s sexual exploits, described fantasies which she harbored for co-workers and propositioned Ms. Powell for sex. However, soon afterward, Ms. Krutz experienced a religious conversion. After her conversion, Ms. Krutz began talking to Ms. Powell about her religious beliefs, Ms. Powell, at first receptive, later told Krutz not to discuss her beliefs.
Several months later, Ms. Powell complained to the company that Krutz continued to proselytize, and therefore, the company told Ms. Krutz not to discuss religious matters with Ms. Powell.
Ms. Powell also complained about religious sayings that were posted in Ms. Krutz’s cubicle, but the company felt the posters did not violate company policy. After several months, Ms. Powell again complained, about Ms. Krutz’s religious posters.
The company moved Ms. Powell away from Ms. Krutz, however, she continued to demand that the company remove the religious posters. A mediation session was scheduled, but the day before the mediation session, Ms. Powell emptied her desk and never returned. Following her termination, Ms. Powell sued the company and Ms. Krutz for sexual and religious harassment.
Yellow Pages moved for summary judgment and the Federal District Court granted summary judgment against Powell. Ms. Powell appealed and the Appellate Court affirmed the lower court.
The Appellate Court held that an employer, has no legal obligation to suppress all religious ex-pression merely because it annoys a single employee. The court noted that the company had told Ms. Krutz to stop discussing religious matters with Ms. Powell and continued to monitor this situation and, therefore, acted promptly and reasonably. Also, moving Ms. Powell away from the religious posters was sufficient because the religious statements were not severe or pervasive enough to alter the terms of her employment. Thus, the posters were unlike the persistent proselytizing over the company’s e-mail system and religious events on company premises found inappropriate in the Ng v. Jacobs case discussed earlier.
Key Practice Tip
√ Re-check your anti-harassment and e-mail policies:
What do they say about religious practices?
Other Practice Tips
√ Accommodate reasonable religious needs of employ-ees (e.g., time off for reli-gious observance, wearing religious garb, etc.)
√ Unduly burdensome religious conduct, which interferes with work of co-workers need not be accommodated.
√ Link refusals to allow religious proselytizing to reasonable company anti-harassment or e-mail privacy policies.