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Forced Participation In Religious Events: The Risks

Written exclusively for ChubbWorks

A former employee sued his construction company employer, alleging it terminated him because he did not attend a Bible study.

According to the plaintiff, he initially attended the Bible study despite the fact that his religion is based on Native American culture and is not based on the Bible. The employer payed employees for the time they spent in the religious study time. The former employee eventually decided to stop attending and alleges his employer terminated him for failing to attend.

The employer claims he does not require employees to attend the Bible study and alleges the employee left his position voluntarily to take a job with another employer. Amber Wilmarth "Painter Says Former Boss Fired Him For Not Attending Bible Study" (Aug. 31, 2018).

Commentary and Checklist

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion in all areas of employment. An employer cannot force participation, either explicitly or implicitly, in a religious activity as a condition of employment.

In this matter, the issue is that the plaintiff alleges he was terminated for refusing to attend the meetings. If true, that is a violation of Title VII.

The employer above argues he never made attendance a requirement for employees. However, the employer’s decision to pay employees to attend the religious study time suggests otherwise. An employee who chooses not to attend will, at the least, have his or her wages reduced or will be less likely to have any overtime wages.

Even if an employer communicates to employees that attendance at a workplace religious event is optional and pay is not affected, employees may still feel coerced or that their jobs are threatened if they don’t participate.

Take note of these best practices to prevent religious discrimination risk:

  • Do not treat employees or applicants more or less favorably because of their religious beliefs or practices, except to the extent a religious accommodation is warranted.
  • Do not force employees to participate, or to not participate, in a religious practice or belief as a condition of employment.
  • Accommodate an employee's religious beliefs and practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer's legitimate business interests.
  • Take steps to prevent religious harassment of employees. These steps may include anti-discrimination training, implementing an anti-harassment policy, and having an effective procedure for reporting, investigating, and correcting harassing conduct.
  • Watch closely how other employees interact with your employees who have different religious practices to make sure there is no harassment occurring.
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