Employers may bar religious affinity groups

By Judith A. Moldover Jan 13, 2006
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An employer does not violate Title VII by refusing to approve employee affinity groups organized around religion, even though it permits affinity groups based on other categories such as national origin, sexual orientation and disability, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided.

The appeals court upheld the dismissal of a complaint filed against General Motors (GM) by a born-again Christian, who claimed that the companys denial of his application to start a religious affinity group violated Title VIIs prohibition against religious discrimination. The employee had not suffered disparate treatment as a result of his religion because GM did not allow affinity groups for any religion.

In 1999, GM issued guidelines for the formation of employee affinity groups. The guidelines require all groups to be open to any active, full-time salaried employee who shares the groups goals. Groups may not be organized around mere common interests or activities such as sports, and groups that promote or advocate particular religious or political positions are prohibited.

By the time plaintiff John Moranski tried to register his group in 2002, GM had approved a total of nine affinity groups organized around disabilities, African ancestry, sexual orientation, gender, national origin and military service. GM rejected Moranskis proposed GM Christian Employee Network, although the proposal stated that the network would not promote any particular religion in the workplace. GM had never approved an affinity group promoting a religious position of any kind.

Moranski filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which issued a right to sue letter. The district court granted GMs motion to dismiss the complaint. Even accepting all of the facts in the plaintiffs complaint as true, the company had not violated Title VII, the court ruled, because the company had treated all religions alike.

Affirming the district court, the 7th Circuit examined the language of Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, gender, religion or national origin. The statute defines religion to include all aspects of observance and belief.

The court observed that the basic issue in any Title VII case is whether the employer would have taken the same action if the plaintiff had been a different religion or race or whatever category on which the claim is based. Because GM would not have permitted the plaintiff to form an affinity group based on Judaism or Islam or any other religion, GM did not discriminate against him because of his religion, Christianity.

The company did not treat nonreligious employees more favorably because it also prohibited affinity groups from promoting any religious position, including atheism or indifference to religion. As long as all employees within a given category are treated the same, even if they are all treated badly, there is no violation of Title VII, the court pointed out.

Furthermore, while all individuals (e.g., Christians and Jews) within the same protected category (e.g., religion) must be treated equally, nothing in Title VII compels courts to make cross-comparisons of an employers treatment of different protected categories (e.g., religion vs. race). Finally, the court noted that, as a private entity, the company was not constitutionally required to include religion when providing a forum for employee expression.

Moranski v. General Motors Corp., 7th Cir., No. 05-1803 (Dec. 29, 2005).

Professional Pointer:Religious views are often intertwined with political views, and both can engender strong feelings. This decision gives comfort to private employers who want to avoid controversies in the workplace by excluding certain types of affinity groups. Nevertheless, because most courts are likely to hold an employer responsible for the actions of whatever affinity groups it does choose to sponsor, employers must ensure that all employees are allowed to participate without discrimination or harassment based on any of the many categories protected by federal, state and local law.

Judith A. Moldover is an attorney in the New York office of Ford & Harrison.

Editors Note: This article should not be construed as legal advice.

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