Human Resources Consulting - Columbia SC

Religious Discrimination. What constitutes a Religion?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), religious discrimination involves treating a person (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs. The law protects not only people who belong to traditional, organized religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, but also others who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs.

Recent cases in Nebraska, New York and West Virginia indicate how difficult the determination can be as to what is and what is not a religion. In the first case, a Nebraska inmate sued prison officials for failing to accommodate his religion. The inmate belonged to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSMism). He claimed entitlements to wear full pirate clothing while proselytizing to a sea worthy vessel, to treat Fridays as holidays and to wear a “Colander of Goodness (an actual colander) on his head. In this case the court found that FSMism did not need to be treated as a genuine religion because it failed to meet the criteria as established by the court.

In the second case a New York court came to a different conclusion when considering discrimination claims brought by the EEOC on behalf of the employees of an employer that endorsed a program known as “Onionhead” or “Harnessing Happiness”. The CEO instituted the program as a conflict resolution tool. Employees objected to forced participation because the materials included references to God, demons, Satan, purity and miracles. Employees were also required to burn candles and incense in order to cleanse the workplace as well as to chant or pray in their workplace. In this case, the court found that Onionhead was a religion and allowed the lawsuit to proceed.

Lastly, a jury in West Virginia addressed still another religious accommodation claim. In this case an employee requested a religious accommodation to a new policy which required all employees to clock in and out each day via a biometric hand scanner. The employee believed that the hand scanner was part of an identification system and collection of personal information that would be used by the Antichrist, as described in the New Testament Book of Revelation, to identify his followers with the mark of the beast. At trial, the jury concluded that the employer failed to reasonably accommodate the employee’s sincerely held religious belief that the scanner was immoral. The jury then awarded the employee nearly $600,000 as a judgment against the employer.

These are all true cases. If any employee requests a religious accommodation, all employers should consider the potential problems of not seriously considering all available options.

A company’s best defense against the potential expense and aggravation related to federal or state law violations is to proactively review and revise as needed their Human Resources policies, handbooks, hiring procedures, compensation, benefits, training programs, communications tools and other functions. The professionals of PHHR are ready to assist your organization maintain compliance with the latest state and federal mandates.

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Paul Hilton, Human Resources Consulting, LLC
Columbia, South Carolina
Office: (803) 481-9533
Cell: (803) 305-8962 

Paul Hilton, Human Resources Consulting, LLC