An employee at a ski resort in Keystone, Colo., was told by a supervisor not to play Christian music while on duty.
A doctor interviewing for a job at a medical group in the Dallas area was told she would not be allowed to wear her hijab, a traditional Muslim head scarf.
And Home Depot recently fired a worker in Okeechobee, Fla., for wearing a button on his orange apron that mentioned God.
Employers sometimes frown on outward displays of religion even as some employees demand their right to express themselves. The laws aren’t always clearly defined, but wearing your religion on your sleeve in a largely secular American workplace could hinder your career.
Religious bias charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hit a record high of 3,273 in 2008, up from 1,709 a decade ago. Increased religious diversity in the labor force and more employees engaging in religious expression at work may be factors behind the increase, said EEOC spokesman David Grinberg.
Bias complaints of all kinds have risen in the recession, partly because so many millions of people have lost jobs.
Employers are required to provide “reasonable accommodation for the religious practices and beliefs of employees” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the question is, what exactly is reasonable?
“It depends on the nature of an employer’s business, the impact on their business” and whether religious expression creates an undue hardship on the company, said Leslie Silverman, a lawyer at Proskauer Rose in Washington and former vice chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It also can be a problem if one person's religious expression is perceived as harassment of another employee.
Employers would have a hard time making a case against religious garb such as hijabs, yarmulkes or turbans because “it’s hard for an employer to suggest having an employee wear that is an undue hardship,” Silverman said.
An exception to that rule could be made for safety issues. For example, an employer might ban certain kinds of clothing or long beards that might get caught in machinery.
Balancing religious freedom in the workplace can be a “thorny” issue, agreed Eric Peterson of the Maryland Society for Human Resource Management State Council, who believes the goal should be to be as inclusive as possible.
But proselytizing, or trying to convert others to your faith, is a workplace no-no, he said.
Christian music at work
In the case of the ski resort, a supervisor at Vail Corp. ski resort operations forbade employee Lisa Marie Cornwell from discussing her Christian beliefs at work and from listening to Christian music during work hours, even though there were no such restrictions on other workers, according to an EEOC settlement.
The supervisor ridiculed her requests and created “a sexually hostile work environment.” After complaining to human resources, Cornwell was fired in retaliation, the EEOC concluded.
Vail agreed earlier this year to pay $80,000 to settle the case with the EEOC.
In the case of the medical group and the headscarf kerfuffle, the employer appeared to backtrack on its initial objections.
Dr. Hena Zaki of Plano, Texas, applied for a job at medical group CareNow and was told during the interview process that she would not be allowed to wear the headscarf at work as part of its “no hat” policy.
A pro-Muslim rights group, Council on American-Islamic Relations, advocating on behalf of Zaki, sent a letter to CareNow noting Zaki’s rights. “They didn’t understand the law,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for CAIR.
CareNow officials did not return phone calls, but in a statement to local media following news reports of the hijab flap, CareNow officials said: "We apologize to Dr. Zaki for the misunderstanding. We will clarify our policy and will continue our ongoing sensitivity training."
"I've worn it for well over a year, and I support my country and God," Trevor Keezer, the cashier who was terminated, told The Associated Press in October.
Keezer’s attorney Kara Skorupa told the AP she planned to sue, but she did not return phone calls.
Home Depot spokesman Ron DeFeo said in a statement that it was a dress-code issue.
“Badges, buttons and pins are a big part of our culture. We give away thousands of them a year to our associates to recognize great customer service, store accomplishments, company milestones or to commemorate our community affairs initiatives,” he said. “And we have a long-standing, well-communicated policy that states that only company-provided pins and badges can be worn by our associates.”
Taking a religious stand at work can be costly to your career.
“If you want to advance in most workplaces, it is really important to fit into what the culture is,” said Lynne Eisaguirre, former employment attorney and author of “We Need to Talk: Tough Conversations with your Boss.”
The trend lately is to create a more secular environment, she added, especially during the holiday season when many employers are opting for non-denominational parties and décor at work.
Having small religious symbols at your cubicle or around your neck probably won’t cross the line, but if you’re creating a shrine at your work station or covering yourself with religious messages, that may not be a good career move, Eisaguirre said. “Many times it's co-workers who can inadvertently create a hostile environment, especially for those who do not follow the dominant religion in their work group.”
Corporations have a long way to go before diversity is truly accepted. When’s the last time you saw a CEO of a major corporation wearing a headscarf or sporting a God button?
When it comes to acceptance of all religions at work, “it’s better than it used to be,” Eisaguirre maintained, but “in most corporate cultures there’s a certain boundary on what you look like and act like.
“The reality is we all give up something in exchange for a paycheck,” she said.