What to Do When a Christian Alleges Discrimination

By Steve Taylor Sep 8, 2011
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Whether the numbers of claims of religious discrimination brought by Christians are rising or not, many Christians in the United States and the United Kingdom see themselves as members of an oppressed group—something that HR professionals need to be awa​re of.

Some HR veterans are skeptical, even dismissive of the idea. “I can hardly wait to see what discrimination [Christians face], other than the request to use the words ‘Christmas Party’ rather than ‘Holiday Party,’ ” one consultant commented on the topic of this article. “I like to put things in perspective and this is truly not one of the most important issues we face in business.”

Perhaps not. But talk radio and cable TV can be expected to raise the “war on Christmas” issue again this December. And some Christians feel that they’re experiencing discrimination based on their faith.

Here’s one reason why: “In any country there is a mainstream religion, and in the U.S. for the most part it is Christianity, although there are many variations,” said Neal Goodman, president of Global Dynamics, a cross-cultural training company. “The mainstream will potentially feel that their position changes as more people openly display their own [non-Christian] religion in a public way.”

That feeling carries high emotional content. Consider these excerpts from an online discussion:

Johanne: “Why is it ‘wrong’ (or at least politically incorrect) to say ‘Merry Christmas?’ Can you imagine a MLK Jr. day without people mentioning the history of Martin Luther King Jr? ... If I quote Siddhartha Gautama [the founder of Buddhism] it’s perfectly acceptable. But if I quote Jesus, it’s wrong—people actually do wince.”

Austin: “You are calling ‘discrimination’ where people simply aren’t treating you and your beliefs with the same deference and respect you think you deserve.”

Paul: “Our once great nation was created by people who believed in GOD and his son Jesus Christ. At one time we could honor him at any time and place. [Now] we cannot call that which is evil wrong, nor can we share our beliefs without being called an extremist or a hater!”

Austin: “[Christians] can't stand being treated like adherents of every other religion and this, in turn, amounts to persecution in their minds.”

If this exchange occurred in a workplace, and especially if Austin were a supervisor, a religious discrimination claim might well result.

The British Experience

Claims of Christian discrimination might find greater governmental support in Great Britain. That country’s Equality and Human Rights Commission plans to intervene on behalf of Christians in cases that are moving to the European Court of Human Rights, including:

  • A relationship counselor who was told that he had no right to refuse to give sex therapy to same-sex couples.
  • A British Airways employee who was suspended when she refused to cover up her Christian cross at work. Christian groups pointed out that Muslim and Sikh employees were permitted to display symbols of their faith.

Similar cases often arise in U.S. workplaces. Christians usually argue they are being forced to do something that violates the teachings of their religion, or that they are being prevented from making free expression of their faith. In that compulsion lies the supposed discrimination.

How should the HR professional respond?

“Treat the complaint from the Christian employee like any other alleged claim of discrimination,” recommended employment attorney Clifford Anderson of Hellmuth & Johnson in Edina, Minn. “The first step is to take the claim, get the facts, investigate and evaluate whether there’s merit to it.”

Such claims often involve work scheduling. For example, Joyce Dubensky, CEO of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in New York, said a Christian employee of a fancy spa objected to having to work every Sunday. When she applied to use vacation time to take Sunday off, Dubensky recalled, “Her boss snidely teased her, saying, ‘You’re gonna go [be] God for us today? Make sure we’re all saved!’ ”

Scheduling preferences are not, of course, restricted to Christians on Sundays. “I’ve heard [employers] tell me they don’t want to hire Jews because they don’t want to work on the Sabbath,” Dubensky said. She advised HR professionals to avoid such knee-jerk responses and to recall that religion is a core part of many people’s identities. Realizing that successful accommodations boost morale as well as the bottom line, Dubensky urged HR practitioners to “think creatively about ways to respond to the business’s needs and [still] allow the person to practice as he or she wants.”

When Believing Leads to Preaching

Yet sometimes what the employee wants is to convert their co-workers’ religious beliefs, or to change their behavior.

Anderson said, “Here, the likely complaint is going to come from those others in the workplace who are sick and tired of hearing proselytizing and being told what to do.”

“Prohibiting workplace proselytizing may be risky for an employer,” wrote employment lawyer and blogger James Barber of Clausen Miller in Chicago. “Court decisions illustrate that employers must allow their employees to engage in certain religious observances or practices even if they conflict with the employers’ policies. At the same time, observance of religious freedom need not be accommodated if it would cause undue hardship in the workplace to the employer.”

An example is a recent case involving a Wal-Mart stocker in Joliet, Ill., an Apostolic Christian who was fired after co-workers reported her screaming at a gay employee that God does not accept homosexuals and that they will “go to hell” because they are not “right in the head.” Wal-Mart said the discharged woman violated its zero tolerance harassment policy. She sued. In March, 2011, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued a summary judgment that Wal-Mart did not commit religious discrimination, that it applied its anti-harassment rules properly and that those rules were known to the woman.

In such cases, Anderson said, “Typically you’re going to have a claim of religious discrimination from the individual who is proselytizing and a claim of harassment from those being proselytized to. HR will have to sort out which is which.”

Getting Help

Our experts encouraged HR professionals to find assistance within their companies in dealing with Christian employees who feel they’re being discriminated against. Dubensky recommended making allies of employee resource groups, “where we see ... Christians seeking to be heard.”

“The HR person has got to work very closely with the [diversity & inclusion] champion,” said Goodman. “There should be in each organization—especially large ones—a diversity and inclusion champion who’s up to speed and knows who to call in from the outside.” Goodman mentioned Dubensky’s Tanenbaum Center, and the Anti-Defamation League. “Not consultants,” he said, “but organizations one can go to for help with difficult questions. You shouldn’t be alone as an HR specialist.”

Steve Taylor is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.
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