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Do Atheists Have a Right to a "Religion-Free" Workplace?

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"I own a commercial nursery with about 30 seasonal employees. My kids also work for me. One morning, my daughter tacked a handmade poster with a Bible verse on my door. It referred to flowers and nature. My door faces into the break room.

One of my supervisors tore down the poster and told me we were violating her rights to a religion-free workplace. She's worked for me for 18 years and is a valuable employee.

I was shocked. Is she right? Do I have the right to fire her for doing this?"

Well, here's a twist. Once upon a time, people had to fight to have their religious views respected in the workplace. But at least in the United States, a significant segment of the population, bolstered by books such as Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" and movies such as Bill Maher's "Religulous," identify themselves as atheists or secular humanists.

These folks want their rights, too, and are fighting against what they perceive as society's bias in favor of religiously minded people.

There is (as yet) no constitutional right to a "religion-free workplace" — the supervisor is dead wrong about that. In fact, attempting to create such a workplace may expose this employer to liability for denying religious employees the constitutionally guaranteed right to express their beliefs in the workplace.

Generally, employers are required by law to make "reasonable accommodations" to employees with religious needs, just as they are required to do for the disabled. Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, among other laws, offers broad protections to religious-minded people. If a person's religion prohibits him from cutting his hair, and having long hair doesn't interfere with his work or create a hazardous work environment (for example, the employee sits at a desk all day and is not required to operate machinery in which his long hair could get caught), an employer cannot legally require the employee to cut his hair, or deny him a promotion on the basis of his appearance.

The courts have been equally strict about not allowing one employee to create a hostile work environment for others by harassing them about what they do or don't believe. An evangelical Christian employee who passes out copies of the Gospel of John to all of his Jewish co-workers in an effort to convert them to Christianity would almost certainly have to be reprimanded for his behavior, and possibly terminated if he fails to cease proselytizing in the workplace after due warning.

Posting a Bible quote on an office wall, as the reader's daughter did, almost certainly would not be viewed as creating a hostile environment, especially as the quote in this case is not designed to express a view that excludes, belittles or threatens people of other religions (as compared to, for example, a wall poster saying "Jihad against non-believers is necessary in the service of God" or "Members of Faith X are guilty of killing and eating children"). Most atheists of my acquaintance have nothing against flowers or nature, to my knowledge, and would probably agree with the quote regardless of its origin.

By tearing down the poster in full view of the reader's daughter and (presumably) other employees in the break area, the worker may have helped to create a hostile work environment for religious people that may justify a reprimand or termination.

The first thing this reader should do is consult with an attorney who specializes in civil rights or employee relations law to determine how the local federal courts have construed the rights of non-religious people in the workplace. If those courts' rulings are consistent with my analysis above, the reader should then meet privately with the supervisor and tell her in no uncertain terms that if she believes a hostile work environment has been created by any other employee's actions, she should speak first to her boss (the reader) before taking unilateral action that may expose the entire company to a lawsuit and negative publicity.

Assuming that doesn't work, and recognizing that the supervisor is a valued employee whom the reader would be reluctant to terminate, there are two "common sense" options:

Do nothing. It will cost tens of thousands of dollars to bring a federal lawsuit for religious discrimination, and hundreds of thousands more dollars to reach a judgment — unless the supervisor is extremely wealthy (or has the backing of a well-funded atheists' rights group who can afford to bring a "test case"), it is highly unlikely the supervisor will sue her employer.

Re-post the offending wall poster and quotation, but cover over that portion of the poster that attributes the quote to the Christian Bible — as far as I can tell, God is pretty mellow about such things and probably won't sue this company for infringing His copyright to the quote.

Although, wouldn't it be a gas if He did? We wouldn't have to worry about atheists' rights then, would we?

Cliff Ennico (crennico@gmail.com) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our Web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2010 CLIFFORD R. ENNICO.

DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM



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