Religion At Work Can Bring Fire And Brimstone

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.”

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  • by Christian Employer Location: ENC on Mar 19, 2012 at 08:23 AM
    Thank God I own my own business. Actually God owns it in my perspective. I don't push my faith on anyone that works for me or uses my services, but I can and will talk about God when I get ready because it is freedom of speech. Everything I have and own is because of GOD.
  • by what does God say about it? on Mar 18, 2012 at 11:35 AM
    so, i was flipping through my Bible at church today and came across something interesting that was relevant to this discussion. Read Titus chapter 3. It says how Christians are to go about their lives as a witness for Christ. It's not a contest over who is right or wrong--we will leave it to the worldly to fight it out, because in the end, we will have God, and He is the ultimate truth. If these people will not listen, let them be. We shared it and need not push on them what they will not hear. it is true that our actions will speak louder than words, and we should pray that these actions DO glorify God. those that don't want to hear it will find fault in anything we do and say. they are considered "self-condemned", and all we can do is pray that God changes their hearts.
  • by Anon on Mar 18, 2012 at 10:43 AM
    I am always amused by these discussions. The majority of our population that professes a religion are Christian. Yet, they thrive on claiming that they are a persecuted minority. And to the Brown and Wood employee, would you hire a non-Christian? And if so, would that employee be forced to participate in a Christian prayer?
  • by Sam Location: Kitty Hawk on Mar 18, 2012 at 10:02 AM
    I believe in God but in a place of business, you have to keep topics such as religion and politics else where. It's just good common sense.
  • by The Invisible Hand on Mar 18, 2012 at 06:35 AM
    Businesses need customers and the more the better. Any business that promotes religion or politics is going to immediately alienate some of their potential customer pool. It simply makes good business sense to keep your religious beliefs and politics to yourself.
    • reply
      by maybe on Mar 18, 2012 at 11:23 AM in reply to The Invisible Hand
      i think if you are selling your religion along with your goods, you may be right. however, as i stated before, meeting and praying with co workers at work makes a difference in how we go about our day. we may not be allowed to share our religion, but we can pray that our actions speak louder than words. people are not a "customer pool" to us, they are PEOPLE--and they know that--and thats why people love coming to the place i work, to be treated like a person and not an interest group.
      • reply
        by The Invisible Hand on Mar 18, 2012 at 02:09 PM in reply to maybe
        If I was a potential customer in your business and you started praying for me, I would leave immediately and never come back. And, tell my friends and they would not do business with you either.
        • reply
          by hmph! lol.. on Mar 18, 2012 at 06:12 PM in reply to The Invisible Hand
          yeah, you totally didnt read my post at all! on the defense much!!? i said meet and pray with co-workers. not customers.
  • by to all the brilliant people on Mar 18, 2012 at 05:58 AM
    atheists are mindless.
  • by Luis Location: greenville on Mar 18, 2012 at 03:34 AM
    There are different religions and beliefs and the person who believes it should be respected. You can't control what a person thinks so don't be angered when their opinion differs. I am a christian and that is my choice .
  • by inflamed in the membrane on Mar 17, 2012 at 09:02 PM
    so...the story doesnt say whether a person is actually persecuted for their beliefs at work now, but that the attitude towards hearing about these beliefs are negative. there is no significant evidence that the nasa worker was fired for their religious beliefs. it IS nice to know that there is someone at nasa who can believe in God as much as scientists try to refute what they cannot prove (or disprove). however, i think this is an inflammatory story to get everyone riled up.
    • reply
      by Smarty on Mar 18, 2012 at 06:06 AM in reply to inflamed in the membrane
      There is no way to prove that something doesn't exist. Science depends on evidence and there is none for any kind of god (except maybe Donald Trump, a god in his own mind). If your or any god or even a devil would just quit being mysterious and just come on down or up here and reveal themselves then you might have a better argument.
      • reply
        by genius on Mar 18, 2012 at 06:18 PM in reply to Smarty
        a lot of research, actually, is based on experiments proving that something doesnt work, (or that the variables remain unchanged). this is called the null hypothesis. so you dont necessarily need to see "positive evidence" in research for a theory to become proven (just look at a little theory called the "big bang" theory--in which something comes from nothingness). also, can you prove that you have a mind? you cannot. scientists, in fact, do not like to say that people have a mind, because we cannot see it. they cannot define "consciousness" scientifically, because that would indicate having a mind of some sort. personally, i choose to be an existentialist. because i can, in case that was lost on you. how much faith do you have in your beliefs, whatever they are? how many times have you taken "the word" of a scientist without having the evidence and process of discovery revealed to you?
  • by Betty Location: Kinston on Mar 17, 2012 at 08:52 PM
    Employers need to be careful not to step on the rights of their employees as well. My company subjects us to a weekly visit from a corporate chaplain. His visits are unwelcome by many, as they feel that religion is a very personal thing and should not be forced upon us in the work place. I can see lawsuit written all over this.
    • reply
      by wow on Mar 18, 2012 at 05:36 AM in reply to Betty
      i am a christian, and i agree with you there. while i believe it is okay to express your beliefs as a worker, it seems unfair to "subject" a person to weekly visits from a religious affiliation which you may or may not be a part of. unless of course you work in a church or religious organization..
  • by Greenville Resident Location: Greenville on Mar 17, 2012 at 08:52 PM
    I work at Brown and Wood where we openly profess our faith. We open each meeting with prayer and try and treat each customer by the golden rule. There is nothing wrong with being open about your faith and sharing with others. It's nice to work in an environment where we are encouraged as Christians to treat others the way that we would want to be treated. Very Proud employee
    • reply
      by awesome on Mar 18, 2012 at 05:39 AM in reply to Greenville Resident
      we do the same at our place--and i believe it makes a difference in how we work. we pray that we can help people and honor God with our jobs. thanks for letting me know where you work..alot of car places are dishonest and i dont trust them. so its good to know theres one where people want to do the right thing.
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