Image: Worker praying
Ben Grefsrud / msnbc.com
More and more, people of faith are deciding they don’t want to leave their religion at the office or factory door, and they want managers to accommodate their beliefs. When they don’t, some workers are taking their demands to human resources, the courts and even filing charges with government agencies.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/30/2007 6:13:33 PM ET 2007-09-30T22:13:33

What if your religion required you to wear a beard but your employer has a no-facial-hair policy for all its delivery drivers?

What if your religion required you to pray every day at sunset, but your job on a factory line made it difficult to take a break during your shift?

What if your religion required you to shun violence but your job entailed doing tech support for a client that makes violent computer games?

These are all real-life situations, and they are a sampling of a growing battle going on in today’s workplace — a battle between what has long been a secular work world in the U.S. and the ever-increasing religiosity permeating our society.

More and more, people of faith are deciding they don’t want to leave their religion at the office or factory door, and they want managers to accommodate their beliefs. When they don’t, some workers are taking their demands to human resources, the courts and even filing charges with government agencies in order to get the changes they believe they need to practice their religion.

"About a year ago, we saw this beginning to heat up," says Ron Saunders with the business research organization The Conference Board. "People are lining up at their HR offices saying, ‘I want to practice my religion.’"

And, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, religious-discrimination complaints have jumped more than 60 percent in the last ten years.

Making some provisions for worship, like providing an empty room for Bible study at work, isn’t entirely new, Saunders explains. What’s new, he adds, is the magnitude of worker requests: "Now people are saying 'I don’t want to do my job because it doesn’t fit in with my faith practice.'"

It’s just a natural progression, says David W. Miller, executive director, Yale Center for Faith & Culture, and author of "God at Work." The '60s was about race in the workplace; the '70s addressed women’s needs; the '80s was about family-friendly policies and the Americans With Disabilities Act; the '90s was about sexual orientation, "and now, the big question is religion," he explains. "You don’t have to be embarrassed to be black or Asian, or to be a woman or gay, why should you be embarrassed if you want to wear a headscarf or have a prayer need?"

So what’s driving the trend? "People aren’t content to segment religious life and work life anymore," says Andrew Wicks, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

And in a post-Sept. 11 world, the rise in fundamentalism among a host of religions is also contributing, adds David Steingard, assistant director of the Arrupe Center for Business Ethics at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. "Religions have become more prominent in how they want freedom to be expressed in the workplace, and we have a ‘what’s in it for me’ kind of thing."

But he warns, "It can become ridiculous, with everyone making a claim."

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers can not discriminate against their workers based on religion; and they also have to make reasonable accommodations for their "employees' sincerely held religious practices" wherever possible. That’s where the gray area emerges. Companies have to make accommodations, unless those accommodations create an "undue" burden.

The interpretation of what exactly is an undue burden is often left to the courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, when workers and management can’t resolve the issue in house.

While making such accommodations can cause tension in the workplace when other employees feel they are being treated unfairly because they don’t get the same benefits, employers are still required to make the changes, says Michael Cohen, an employment attorney with the Philadelphia law firm WolfBlock.

But there are four key factors that let employers off the hook, Cohen notes.

  1. If the changes diminish the efficiencies of other workers.
  2. The cost related to making the changes goes beyond ordinary administrative costs.
  3. The adjustments overburden co-workers.
  4. Or they impair workplace safety.

The Civil Rights Act was originally designed to try to avoid hate speech and to integrate people into the workplace, allow them to move up through the ranks just like everyone else, as opposed to protecting religious expression in the workplace, says Diana Scott, labor attorney for management law firm Greenberg Traurig. But with each passing generation, she adds, "people are more educated and more emboldened in the workplace when it comes to what their rights are."

The case of the driver with the beard is part of a lawsuit filed against United Parcel Service by the EEOC in March on behalf of a Rastafarian named Ronnis Mason who was not hired by UPS because of his beard.

"Mason wears his beard as part of his observance of Rastafarianism, a Jamaican-born religion with around one million adherents in the world," an EEOC statements details. "Mason explained to UPS that he could not shave his beard, and UPS told him that he could then only apply for an "inside," lower-paying position that would not have contact with the public."

In the suit, the EEOC alleges that UPS committed religious discrimination and maintains allowing Mason to keep his beard did not pose an undue hardship for the company.

Asking for prayer time at work is also one type of religious accommodation legal experts say is on the rise. In one particular case that is still ongoing, a group of Muslim workers at a Swift & Co. meatpacking plant were denied a request for time to pray at sunset.

“We think a 10-minute break is a reasonable accommodation,” says the attorney for the workers, Rima Kapitan, who works for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, because it would not disrupt the factory line.

A spokesman from Swift would not comment on the matter, other than to say they are engaged in “ongoing dialogue” regarding the issue.

Kapitan says she’s confident they’ll be able to find common ground.

In another case brought by the EEOC, a devout Christian employee at Sykes Enterprises refused to provide technical support to a customer that produced violent computer games because she deemed them “an abomination in the eyes of God.” The worker was fired for refusing to handle the account but the case was resolved with a settlement agreement to the tune of $80,000.

It’s unclear what long-term impact cases like these will have on the workplace.

Lori Lipman Brown, the director of the Secular Coalition for America, believes it’s a good idea to keep religion out of the workplace. "If someone applies for a job and the busiest time for the company is on the weekend but you have to take the Sabbath off, maybe you’ve applied for the wrong job," she says.

Yale’s Miller sees nothing wrong with corporations adopting "faith-friendly" policies. "They’re just recognizing the spirit of what people are," he notes.

But the increase of requests for religious accommodations, some experts say, may end up testing how strongly we stand by what’s becoming a thornier issue in the United States — the separation of church and state.

In the long run, predicts Steingard from St. Joseph’s University, the courts may ultimately decide, "You come to work to work and forget you have a religion."

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