RELIGION IN THE WORKPLACE HAVE FAITH IN THE LAW « Law Offices of Timothy Bowles | Top Employment Law Firm in Los Angeles


Religion in the Workplace, Have Faith in the Law

Bill, a hospital supervisor, learned that one of his subordinates, Harvinder, has been wearing a miniature sword strapped to and hidden underneath her clothing. Harvinder is a baptized Sikh who wears the 4-inch dull and sheathed sword (called a kirpan) as a symbol of her religious commitment to defend truth and moral values. Bill instructed Harvinder not to wear the kirpan at work because it violated hospital policy against bringing weapons in the workplace. Harvinder explained to Bill that her faith requires her to wear a kirpan in order to comply with the Sikh Code of Conduct, and gave him literature explaining the kirpan is not a weapon. Harvinder also allowed Bill to examine the kirpan so he could see it was no sharper than a butter knife.

It may be surprising to learn that if Bill were then to inform Harvinder she would be terminated if she continued to wear the kirpan at work, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) would consider the hospital liable for religious discrimination in the workplace. In the face of a potential conflict between a religious practice such as Harvinder’s and an employer’s policy, in this case the company’s obligation to maintain a safe and secure workplace, that employer must almost always take the initiative to see if a reasonable accommodation for that religious practice can be reached.

Only where an employer can show that any accommodation for religious practice would impose an undue economic hardship is that company excused from permitting that practice to continue. Employment laws establish that resolution of religion in the workplace issues is a case-by-case proposition. An undue hardship is found where the proposed accommodation imposed more than a de minimus (trifling or minimal) cost to the employer. Examples where courts have found accommodations imposed undue hardship include “additional costs in the form of lost efficiency or higher wages.” Balint v. Carson City, Nevada (Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals [9th Cir] 1998) 180 Federal Reporter, Third Series (F.3rd) 1047, 1051, note 4.

Thus, faced with Harvinder’s request to continue wearing her kirpan in the workplace, Bill would have to explore whether the company could accommodate the request without a disruption in operations that would amount to more than a minimal or trivial distraction. If Harvinder’s request was to carry a loaded gun based on her religion’s principles, Bill would obviously have a much easier decision since such a weapon creates a hostile work environment to say the least, nearly certain to significantly divert fellow hospital workers from full attention to their duties. However, a ceremonial object no sharper than a butter knife – and kept out of sight of other workers in any event — can probably be accommodated since it would be difficult at best to distinguish between that object and the eating utensils brought by other workers and utilized daily on the premises.

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