Thursday, March 22, 2007

Pork problem is just the latest beef in religion-work disputes

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Accommodating work and religion has been a thorny issue ever since the days of the Puritans, and now it's more complicated.

Walgreens, the pharmacy giant with stores in 47 states, doesn't require its pharmacists to fill prescriptions that violate their moral or religious beliefs -- accommodating some pharmacists' opposition to birth control, for example.

Creighton University, a Catholic Jesuit university in Omaha, does not perform abortions at its hospital or teach the procedure to the medical students there -- accommodating the institution's opposition to abortion.

Ever since the Puritans prohibited certain commercial activities on Sundays in the 1600s -- so the faithful could spend their Sabbath in worship -- workplaces have accommodated at least some religion-based work limitations.

The principle just popped up again in the Twin Cities, when some Muslim cashiers at Target stores refused to scan customers' pork products on religious grounds. Target had them flag another employee to do the scanning, but within days of news reports and hours of talk radio devoted to the topic, Target changed its policy. Cashiers who refuse to ring up pork products are given other positions, a policy already in place at other area grocery stores.

"Here in Minnesota we're seeing a lot about the issues brought by Muslims into the workforce, but certainly I can tell you these are issues employees from all the various faiths bring to work with them," said Andrew Voss, an employment lawyer who represents management, in the Minneapolis office of Littler Mendelson.

"The United States is a very religious society, and we have very strong ideas about legal protections for our faiths," Voss said.

The law on this is Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace. It requires employers to make "reasonable accommodations" for an employee's religious beliefs -- "reasonable" being anything that doesn't create an "undue hardship" on the employer or on co-workers.

Religious tongue ring

This has led to all manner of clashes. Voss mentioned a few, mostly handled by his firm:

• A large retailer strictly limited jewelry and makeup worn by employees who work with the public. The company allowed a Hindu woman more latitude in facial jewelry but decided not to accommodate another employee who said she wore a tongue ring as part of her religion's requirement of daily suffering.

• At another company, several conservative Christians read Bibles throughout a diversity training because they objected to its focus on accepting gays and lesbians. They were disciplined for their protest. But they alleged they'd been singled out because of their religious views. They won, because the court was convinced plenty of other employees weren't really paying attention in the training session, either.

• At yet another company, a conservative Christian came to work wearing a big button with a color photo of a fetus, saying her faith required her to be a witness against abortion. Co-workers complained. The employer offered her three accommodations: Wear the button but cover it; wear it only in her cubicle, or wear a button that had only text. She said none of those were acceptable accommodations. But the courts sided with the employer, saying the options may not have been her top choices but they were reasonable.

Across the U.S. workforce, employers often arrange Saturdays off for Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists to observe their Sabbaths, said Bette Novit Evans, a professor of political science and international relations at Creighton University.

The Christian Sabbath and important holidays are rarely a scheduling issue because they are our cultural norm, she said. "Those accommodations go on all the time, but when they're so mainstream, we don't even notice them."

In one variation, some employees who didn't get accommodation on the job did get it in the unemployment line.

For example, Eddie Thomas was a Jehovah's Witness who worked for a sheet-metal foundry in Indiana. When it closed, the company moved him to another site, one that manufactured tank turrets. He argued that his religious beliefs prevented him from producing weapons, so he had no choice but to quit.

Legally, he had to be fired to qualify for unemployment pay. But in its 1981 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that in effect, Thomas had been fired for his religious beliefs, and it granted him the benefits.

Public scrutiny

Cases that draw public attention, with "strong opinions on both sides," often get especially complicated, Voss said.

For one thing, the attention can hurt a company's business, which makes it a legitimate consideration in "undue hardship."

Walgreens attempts to minimize potential complaints by promising that another pharmacist on duty will fill any prescription or that the company will arrange for it to be filled immediately at a nearby pharmacy, said spokeswoman Carol Hively, at Walgreens' Deerfield, Ill., headquarters.

That's not always good enough for some state legislatures, which are weighing in on both sides of the pharmacy debate. Pharmacists in Arkansas, Georgia and South Dakota, for example, can refuse to distribute some drugs, while those in Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada must dispense them, according to the National Women's Law Center in Washington.

What are your workplace issues? You can reach H.J. Cummins at workandlife @startribune.com. Please sign your e-mails; no names will appear in print without prior approval. StarTribune

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