The return of the quarterback evangelist

With the NBA and the NHL heading into the playoffs and Major League Baseball’s 2015 season underway, one might think that the NFL would have a hard time breaking onto page 1 of the sports section these days. (For younger readers, that was a reference to something we used to call a “newspaper.”) Not so! Football fans in Philadelphia and the rest of the country were either thrilled or chagrined – because with this guy, there is no middle ground – to hear the news this week that the Eagles had signed quarterback Tim Tebow to a one-year contract. iStock_000004238126_Large

Tebow became a national hero in 2007 as the first college sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy, and he followed that feat by leading his Florida Gators to the BCS National Championship in 2008. His college success briefly translated to a modicum of NFL success with the Denver Broncos, but his style of play (and some would say, lack of skill) soon proved incompatible with the pros and he was released by the New England Patriots in 2013.

While Tebow became famous for his football exploits, he also received considerable media attention for his public displays of his Christian faith, both on the field and off. While still in college, his penchant for inscribing Bible verses in his “eye black” prompted the NCAA to enact the “Tebow Rule” prohibiting such displays. In the NFL, he popularized the act of “Tebowing” – kneeling on one knee in prayer, head bowed and arm resting on the other knee, which he often did on the football field. His public displays of religion made him very popular among fans and others who appreciated his willingness to use his public platform to “spread the word,” but led many others to criticize him for what they viewed as his over-the-top and self-aggrandizing mix of football with religion.

The fact that Tebow’s overt religious displays rankled some of his teammates and many football fans put his teams and the NFL in a position that many lower-profile employers often find themselves in: where to draw the line with employees who create disruption by bringing their religious beliefs and practices to the workplace. While the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case and new state laws in Indiana and Arkansas have brought considerable recent attention to the issue of an employer’s right to bring “its” religion to the workplace, most employers are far more likely to deal with the issue of employees who, like Tim Tebow, want to bring their religion into the workplace.

Employers have a duty under Title VII and many state laws to provide reasonable accommodations to their employees’ religious beliefs, just as they must reasonably accommodate employees’ disabilities, as long as doing so does not create an undue hardship. Courts addressing the issue have held that irritating and inconveniencing co-workers does not make an accommodation unreasonable or create an undue hardship, but that at some point, the disruption to co-workers can become insurmountable and the employer is relieved of its obligation to accommodate.

In one well-known case, an office employee felt that her religious beliefs required her to wear a button at all times that depicted a graphic image of a fetus along with an anti-abortion message. The button was so distracting to the employee’s co-workers that it caused a 40% drop in productivity, led workers to threaten to walk off the job, and even resulted in two co-workers filing grievances with their union, claiming a hostile work environment. The employer attempted to accommodate the employee, while still respecting her co-workers’ concerns, by offering her several options, including wearing the button only in her own cubicle, covering the button while at work, or wearing a button with a similar message but no graphic picture. The employee refused, stating that these options would violate her promise to be a “living witness,” and eventually, she was discharged. In her ensuing lawsuit alleging religious discrimination, the court ruled in favor of the employer, holding that because of the employee’s unwillingness to compromise, accommodating her beliefs would have created an undue hardship for the company. As the court noted, “Title VII does not require an employer to allow an employee to impose his religious views on others.”

In a similar case, an employee felt that her religion required her to write critical letters to her co-workers for engaging in conduct she found immoral, such as swearing or committing adultery. The employer terminated her employment because of the negativity and disruption the letters caused in the workplace. When the employee sued for religious discrimination, the court ruled against her, holding that her conduct was not the type that an employer could reasonably accommodate because, among other things, allowing it to continue could expose the employer to legal claims by the other employees.

Of course, these two cases represent somewhat extreme examples of employees disrupting the workplace with their religion-based conduct. As noted above, in many cases, an employee’s workplace religious practices merely cause inconvenience to co-workers (e.g., having to cover for an employee during his prayer time) or create relatively minor morale issues (e.g., making exceptions to the dress code). In these less egregious and more common cases, the courts have generally ruled that the necessary accommodations are reasonable and do not create an undue hardship on the employer.

So what should you do, as an employer, when one of your employees begins to etch Bible verses in her mascara or kneel in prayer at the water cooler, like the newest member of the Philadelphia Eagles? Like most employment issues, the answer depends on the specific facts of your situation, and reasonableness and accommodation are the key words. Religion and work can and usually do co-exist, and a skilled employer can usually quarterback her team to success on this issue, which some would note is more than we can say of Tim Tebow in his NFL career thus far.