Employees have religious rights in the workplace, but wearing your religion on your sleeve at work can be hazardous to your career.
The question of how much religion in the workplace is too much is playing out in a California court this week with a closely watched case involving a former NASA employee.
David Coppedge, a former computer specialist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is claiming he lost his managerial role and then his job because he believes in a higher power. His employer says he was harassing employees but was ultimately let go as part of a round of mass layoffs.
Coppedge admitted in a court filing that he was engaging his co-workers in religious conversation, most notably handing out DVDs on intelligent design, and that he was warned by a supervisor to cut it out because it amounted to “pushing religion,” and that the dialogue was “unwelcome” and “disruptive.”
Despite this, Coppedge is suing his former employer for religious discrimination, harassment and wrongful termination.
This type of religious conflict at work is something we’re seeing more of today, compared to even a few decades ago when the workplace was more homogenous, said Jamie Prenkert, an attorney and associate professor of business law at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business.
There is more diversity in offices and factories, and the labor laws have been bolstered to protect the religious rights of employees, covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Indeed, cases of religious discrimination filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have been on the rise since 1997, reaching 4,151 charges last year.
Employers are required to provide “reasonable accommodation for the religious practices and beliefs of employees” under the law. When it's not considered an undue hardship for employers by the courts, workers have won battles including everything from not working on certain religious holidays to prayer time to wearing religious garb.
Increasingly, however, workers are pushing the envelope on what they want to do in the name of their religion, Prenkert said, because many individuals are politically and socially emboldened today to “carry their religion into all aspects of their life.”
That desire, however, can create problems at work. “When you bring that together in the workplace with people of varying backgrounds and beliefs that have to work together, it often results in allegations of intolerance that fly both ways,” he said.
It’s tempting to say we should leave religion at the door, Prenkert added, “but that does ignore some people’s deeply held beliefs.”
Clearly, an employer can’t discriminate against an employee based on religion, but that doesn’t mean your boss has to put up with all behaviors associated with your beliefs, especially if they include harassment, said Joanna Friedman an employment attorney with Tully Rinckey in Washington.
When it comes to religion in the workplace, she said, “it’s fine for employees and even supervisors to talk about religious beliefs as long as it's not done in a manner that’s intimidating or interferes with employment duties or creates a situation where you’re abusing your authority,” she stressed.
It’s unclear if Coppedge stepped over the line.
In his suit, he claims he did not “coerce” or “compel” anyone and that he was singled out because of: “his religious convictions generally, and specifically for his belief in God as the creator of the universe, his support for California’s Proposition 8, which was adopted by voters in November 2008 (striking down the rights of same-sex couples to marry), and his request that JPL’s annual "holiday party" be renamed the "Christmas party," as it had been called in the past.”
But in the suit, he also admits that employees complained to managers about him harassing them by talking about his religious convictions and giving them religious DVDs as gifts.
A spokeswoman for NASA Veronica McGregor said, “Mr. Coppedge was laid off during downsizing. There had been issues, not with the content of Coppedge’s speech but the way he interacted with his co-workers. Of course, that was a separate issue from the layoffs that occurred later.”
While it’s impossible to say who will prevail in the case, Friedman said handing out religious DVDs could be troublesome from a legal perspective.
“The law gives broad protections to employees and managers when it comes to religious beliefs,” she said, “but once an employee’s conduct in the workplace creates problems because of their beliefs, that’s problematic.”