Many employers try to combat workplace bias with diversity programs that emphasize the company’s commitment to respecting differences, such as sexual orientation. But suppose an employee with strong religious beliefs posts messages offensive to a protected group. What are your obligations—to the employee and co-workers—in this situation? A new case addresses this problem.
Diversity Campaign Under Way
As part of its workplace diversity program, Hewlett-Packard (HP) hung diversity posters in its Boise, Idaho, office. One poster showed an HP employee above a caption reading “Gay.” Another poster included the same employee and a description of the employee’s personal interests, along with the slogan, “Diversity is our strength.” HP also maintained a strong antiharassment policy.
Diversity Posters Offend Employee
Richard Peterson had worked for almost 21 years in HP’s Boise office. He described himself as a devout Christian who believed that homosexual activities violated the Bible’s commandments and that he had a duty to “expose evil when confronted with sin.”
In response to the gay diversity posters, Peterson posted three biblical scriptures—in a typeface large enough to be read by passersby—on an overhead bin in his work cubicle. One passage read: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”
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Employee Refuses To Remove Bible Verses
In the days following Peterson’s postings, HP managers met with him several times. Peterson reportedly explained that he meant his passages to condemn gay behavior and to be hurtful. He proposed to remove the scriptural passages only if HP would remove the gay posters, but the company said no. When Peterson continued to refuse to remove the verses, he was terminated for insubordination.
Discharge Leads To Religious Bias Lawsuit
Peterson sued, claiming his termination violated the federal law barring religious discrimination. He argued that HP’s diversity program was an illegal “crusade to convert fundamentalist Christians to its values” and the company was required to accommodate his religious beliefs. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and Peterson appealed.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, which covers California, affirmed the dismissal. The court ruled Peterson was discharged not because of his religious beliefs, but because he violated the company’s antiharassment policy and was repeatedly insubordinate.
The court found HP’s diversity program wasn’t discriminatory but designed to increase tolerance of diversity. Further, the campaign’s emphasis on combating prejudice against homosexuals was consistent with federal civil rights laws. What’s more, Peterson wasn’t singled out for discipline based on his religion, as there was no evidence that other employees were permitted to post messages, religious or secular, that were hurtful or demeaning to any group of employees or that violated the company’s antiharassment policy.
Undue Hardship Found
The court also ruled HP didn’t violate its duty to accommodate Peterson’s religious beliefs because the only accommodations Peterson was willing to accept would have imposed an undue hardship on HP. Specifically, Peterson’s first proposal that he be allowed to continue to post the Bible verses would have compelled HP to permit him to post messages demeaning and harassing to co-workers. And his second proposal—taking down all the diversity posters and Bible verses—would have infringed on HP’s right to promote diversity.
Impact of Ruling
This case demonstrates the tension that can arise when workplace diversity efforts conflict with employee religious beliefs. If you’re faced with a similar situation, be sure to explore whether there is any way to accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs, and thoroughly document your accommodation efforts. Keep in mind that the antibias laws do not require you to accommodate an employee’s desire to impose their religious beliefs on co-workers. And you don’t have to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs if doing so would result in discrimination against co-workers or deprive them of their workplace rights.
This case is also a reminder of the need to enforce your antiharassment policy evenly, taking action against offensive, discriminatory, or demeaning words or actions, regardless of whether the message is religious or secular.