Court Says Permitting Bagel Breakfasts Did Not Promote Islamic Religious Practices

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Ross v. Colo. Dep't of Transp., D. Colo., No. 1:11-cv-02603, 11/14/12

  • Key Holding:Administrative assistant cannot advance religious discrimination claims under Title VII based on organized bagel breakfasts coinciding with Muslim observances.

  • Key Takeaway:Rescheduling a workplace event to permit Muslim employees to attend does not create an inference of religious bias.

By Anne A. Marchessault

A devout Christian administrative assistant could not advance his religious bias claims against the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) for its alleged promotion of Islam in the workplace, the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado decided Nov. 14 (Ross v. Colo. Dep't of Transp., D. Colo., No. 1:11-cv-02603, 11/14/12).

Granting summary judgment to CDOT, the court found that David Ross did not experience a hostile work environment under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act when his objection to rescheduling a luncheon to accommodate Muslim employees was ignored.

“That an employee occasionally may be confronted at work with religious beliefs or practices different from and offensive to his own does not make out a claim for a religiously hostile work environment,” Judge Robert E. Blackburn wrote.

Ross's failure to accommodate, disparate treatment, and retaliation claims were similarly dismissed without evidence that he experienced a materially adverse action in the workplace because of his religious beliefs.

Objected to 'Proselytizing' Practices
Ross, a devout Christian, works as an administrative assistant for CDOT in the Staff Bridge Unit.

On Aug. 11, 2010, he attended a meeting at which the annual employee appreciation luncheon was discussed. The luncheon was scheduled during Ramadan, and one employee requested that it be rescheduled so that a subordinate employee who was an observant Muslim, Ali Harajili, could attend.

Ross's supervisor, Staff Bridge Engineer Mark Leonard, approved the rescheduling.

On Aug. 24, 2010, Ross met with Leonard and told him that the luncheon's rescheduling was contrary to his religious beliefs and asked to be relieved of coordinating the event. Leonard agreed.

On Sept. 22, 2010, Harajili emailed Ross and another administrative assistant, asking them to forward an invitation to employees to have bagels “[o]n behalf of our fellow employees who are celebrating the end of the Month of fasting ().”

Ross refused to forward the invitation, and Leonard asked another employee to send it out.

Ross then told Leonard he believed rescheduling the luncheon violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by “establishing that Ramadan was the top religion” at CDOT. He called Harajili's email “proselytizing” and “promoting Islam in the workplace.”

The following September, another CDOT employee sent an email inviting co-workers to enjoy bagels in the cafeteria to mark the end of Ramadan.

Ross responded that he would not attend the “Religious Cultural Celebration marking the End of Ramadan, because my Faith will not allow it.”

On Nov. 16, 2011, Harajili sent another email to CDOT employees, inviting them to share bagels and cream cheese “[a]s part of our annual treat to staff.” The email did not mention the gathering's alignment with a Muslim holiday, and Ross responded by asking him to “[p]lease correct your request to reflect the subject of your attached emails.”

Ross brought a lawsuit against CDOT for religious discrimination under Title VII. He alleged, among other things, hostile work environment, failure to accommodate, disparate treatment, and retaliation for filing a discrimination charge.

CDOT moved for summary judgment.

Religious Neutrality Not Required
The court granted CDOT's motion for summary judgment on Ross's religious hostile work environment claim.

A hostile work claim requires evidence of discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create an abusive working environment, the court explained. The environment must be both subjectively and objectively hostile or abusive, it added.

Ross claimed that CDOT permitted and promoted Muslim religious observances and traditions, and did not maintain a religiously neutral work environment.

The court found that Ross was subjectively offended by CDOT's rescheduling of the luncheon to allow those who observed Ramadan to participate and CDOT's facilitating of Muslim employees' invitations to bagel breakfasts.

It added, however, that a reasonable person would not view these events as objectively severe or pervasive. Ross did not suggest that anyone at CDOT ever disparaged Christianity generally or him individually because of his religious beliefs, the court observed.

Because the three invitations to share bagels in recognition of a Muslim holiday occurred as isolated incidents over the course of a year, Blackburn wrote, “there is no evidence suggesting that plaintiff was subjected to a constant barrage of references to Islam or requests to accommodate Muslim employees' religious beliefs.”

The court also concluded that “there is no reasonable interpretation by which any of the actions of which he complains could be construed as 'proselytizing,' that is, as efforts 'to convert or attempt to convert … ; [or] recruit' others to Islam.”

That an employee may be confronted with religious beliefs or practices different from his own does not make a hostile work claim, the court ruled.

“Title VII protects workers from religious discrimination, but it does not mandate the completely religiously neutral work environment plaintiff apparently would prefer,” Blackburn said.

Prioritizing Beliefs Undue Burden
The court also rejected Ross's argument that CDOT failed to reasonably accommodate his religious beliefs.

Title VII requires an employer to accommodate employees' religious practices, unless the accommodation would cause an undue hardship on its operation.

Ross contended that CDOT failed to accommodate him by denying his request not to reschedule the 2010 employee appreciation luncheon.

The court said CDOT was obliged only to offer a reasonable accommodation, and “not necessarily the accommodation plaintiff would have preferred.” Ross also did not initially inform Leonard of his religious objections to the rescheduling, the court noted, and Leonard relieved him of any responsibilities for coordinating the luncheon after he did.

Furthermore, the court said, Ross's preferred course would have created an undue hardship by forcing CDOT to “trod on the religious beliefs of other of its employees.”

“I cannot sanction such an absurd, unworkable, and potentially illegal result,” Blackburn wrote.

'Strange Looks' Don't Show Hostility
Ross's disparate treatment and retaliation claims were similarly dismissed because the court found that he had not suffered any adverse employment action under Title VII.

Ross claimed that his duties were changed, that his security level was decreased, and that he was denied information related to his job duties.

The court found that these allegations failed to show that Ross experienced any action materially affecting his job status: the change in his job duties was “nothing more than a semantical tweak in the description” of his position, and the lack of access to information did not actually delay the performance of his duties.

Ross also alleged that he had been “left out of the loop” and got “strange looks from people” in the office.

According to the court, however, co-worker hostility must be sufficiently severe to constitute an adverse employment action. “In the absence of any further particulars,” Blackburn wrote, “I cannot find that co-workers' unspecified 'strange looks' are sufficient to constitute an adverse employment action.”

Maria T. Antill in Westminster, Colo., represented Ross. Michael D. Scott, Douglas J. Cox, and Stephanie L. Scoville of the attorney general's office in Denver represented CDOT.

By Anne A. Marchessault

Text of the opinion is available at /uploadedfiles/BNA_V2/Images/From_BNA_V1/News/Ross-Ruling(1).pdf.

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