Coffin 9-6-2012

My Word: Religion can fit into the workplace

JimCoffin(Orlando Sentinel, September 6, 2012)

By James Coffin

A Muslim woman in California sued her former employer last month, alleging discrimination, workplace harassment and unfair termination because of her religious beliefs. The proper interface of religion and the workplace is an ongoing challenge — and not just for Muslims.

For example, are employers obligated to give employees their “sabbath” off? What about other holy days? Do employees have an inherent right to schedule breaks so they coincide with religion-mandated prayer times? How much should other workers be inconvenienced to accommodate such practices?

What about attire? When does religion-mandated attire become distracting or disruptive? How free should an employer be to require a specific corporate image?

Do religiously committed employees have the right to proselytize on the job? What are the rights of those who don’t appreciate such overtures? Do the same standards apply for private and public sectors?

Such issues arise frequently. Sometimes they’re resolved quickly, amicably and satisfactorily for everyone. At other times, they end up in court, and all parties lose. The employer doesn’t need the adverse publicity and the added cost. And being in litigation doesn’t help the plaintiff’s job prospects.

U.S. courts have consistently upheld certain religious rights for employees. But there’s an even larger field of uncertainty where the outcome is anybody’s guess. Here are a few approaches that may heighten the chance of win-win outcomes:

A workplace atmosphere that promotes respect and dignity for everyone goes a long way toward pre-empting tension.

When both the employer and the employee who’s requesting religious accommodation are committed to honoring the world’s most basic behavioral code — the golden rule — positive outcomes increase.

While all human groups include examples of both virtue and villainy, I would like to think that adherence to religious values increases the statistical probability of an employee providing conscientious service. If that’s the case, then a reasonable degree of employer inconvenience to accommodate religious practice in the workplace is a sound business decision.

Religious employees deserve to have their workplace rights honored. And one of the best ways to ensure it happens is for them to have a commitment to their responsibilities that goes beyond the call of duty.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.