Diversity & Inclusion

Maintaining a religion-neutral workplace

by Charles S. Plumb

About a year ago, a group of private citizens paid for a seven-foot-tall granite monument of the Ten Commandments and gained approval for it to be placed on the north end of the Oklahoma Capitol grounds. Not surprisingly, a satanic group then asked Oklahoma’s Capitol Preservation ComReligiousSymbolsmission for permission to erect a seven-foot-tall “homage” to the Prince of Darkness, and a Hindu organization applied to have a monkey god statue join the growing list of Oklahoma statehouse religious monuments. Most recently, the Pastafarians—people who follow the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster—have asked how they can apply for a spot for their statue on Oklahoma’s Capitol grounds. I’m serious.

What does this have to do with your workplace? Hopefully nothing. But it serves as a good reminder about the potential curveballs an employer can face when religious issues gain prominence at work.

Employee protections

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and comparable state laws prevent employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their religious beliefs. For purposes of these laws, “religion” is defined very broadly and covers a wide range of faiths. The prohibition against religious discrimination also protects employees who have no religious beliefs, such as atheists.

In addition to precluding employers from discriminating against applicants and employees based on their religious beliefs, the laws protect employees from religious harassment in the workplace. Employers may not impose religious demands on their workforce, and employees are protected against unwelcome religious intrusions or proselytizing by their employer or coworkers. That’s why employer-sponsored or -approved religious symbols at work can be a problem.

Keeping faith

Do you intend to pick and choose which religions are deserving of recognition in your workplace? Or would you like to find yourself in the same place as the Oklahoma statehouse—deluged with requests from a variety of faith-based groups asking for equal time at work? Religious beliefs are prone to generate strong feelings. Religious symbols at the office can result in work-time arguments and confrontations.

Nothing rocks my taste buds like linguine in red clam sauce, but an employer has better things to do than argue with a Pastafarian employee about his right to hang a framed picture of the Flying Spaghetti Monster next to a depiction of the Last Supper in the break room. Here are some suggested guidelines when it comes to workplace religious symbols:

  • Treat all faiths with respect.
  • Don’t sponsor or approve religious symbols in the workplace.
  • If it becomes an issue, explain to employees that you respect all faiths, but religious beliefs should be shared and debated outside of work and you are committed to maintaining a religion-neutral workplace.

Charlie Plumb is an attorney with McAfee Taft, practicing in the firm’s Tulsa, Oklahoma, office. He may be contacted at charlie.plumb@mcafeetaft.com.