EEO Roundup: A Reawakening of Religious Bias Claims?

If it seems that we are seeing more workplace religious discrimination claims lately, the facts bear that out. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has experienced a significant increase in yearly religious bias charge filings from 1997 to 2012--rising from 1,709 in 1997 to 4,151 in 2012.

And as is generally the case when there is a rush of litigation in a specific area, some of the new religious discrimination cases present interesting fact patterns and raise potentially significant legal and social questions.

Two recent religious bias cases fit that model. In Ambrose v. Gabay Ent & Associates, P.C., a Roman Catholic receptionist at a Pennsylvania medical practice was allowed to go forward with claims under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act because her employer failed to accommodate her objection to wearing an employee name badge with the practice's "Ten Commandments" displayed on the back.  Similarly, in Scott v. Montgomery County School Board, a library assistant at a Virginia school was allowed to pursue some bias and retaliation claims stemming from her refusal to accept an "orthodox Christian" librarian's evangelical overtures.

The latter case was based in part on the librarian's alleged confession of feeling "righteous anger" toward the library assistant for declining her invitation to join a Bible study group, and raises the issue of how deeply the courts should delve into discussions of faith in the workplace, particularly when there may be evidence that some of the discussion was not entirely unwelcome.

Ambrose poses a perhaps even more interesting question: whether religious expressions can permeate American culture to the point where they can be used with a nonreligious intent and escape the reach of  anti-discrimination laws. The defendant in the case made the argument that its use of the term "Ten Commandments" to explain its workplace rules was made in the "vernacular sense" and was no different than referring to an employee as "angel" or describing a rich dessert as "sinful." Although rejected by the court, it's possible that the argument could carry more weight in other contexts.

EEO-related federal regulatory news over the past few weeks:

  • The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and the General Services Administration agree to lower to $25 million the contract threshold for a federal construction project to be considered a "mega construction project" subject to the agencies' updated memorandum of understanding.
  • The Labor Department informs its employees that the spousal leave provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act apply to married gay couples.
  • The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights unanimously approves final draft sections of a report for the White House and Congress on EEOC's guidance on using criminal histories in hiring decisions.