Religious Tolerance: Going A Little Too Far

Today I read a religious discrimination story from Suits in the Workplace.

The case discussed involved a manager who hired only people with a close religious bond to him, engaged in office prayer, gave business advantages to his coreligionists, sang religious songs and left religious materials on the plaintiff’s desk. The plaintiff sued for religious discrimination.

What do you think the court said?

Well, note that the plaintiff (who was Jewish) agreed that his manager did not try to convert him, and did not make negative remarks about the Jewish religion.

Given all of these facts, the court ruled against the plaintiff ( Ennis v. Sonitrol Mgmt. Corp., No. 02-CV-9070 (SDNY, Jan.25, 2006)).

Seems like religious harassment has a much different level that must be reached compared to, say, sexual harassment, before a court will find merit to a religious discrimination lawsuit. What gives?

1 Comment

  1. I just took a quick look at the court’s opinion on Westlaw.

    Perhaps the opinion does reflect a bit of a double standard compared to sexual harassment cases.

    On the other hand, perhaps the court properly applied hostile environment analysis. If applied comparably to sexual harassment cases, the principles applied would reduce the volume of such cases that are based on sexually oriented jokes and comments clearly not intended to offend the plaintiff.

    One principle applied by the court is: “The religious hostility complained of must also be directed at the individual ‘because of such individual’s . . . religion.’. . . An environment that would be equally harsh for all workers, or that arises from personal animosity, is not actionable.”

    In the context of religious discrimination, a work environment promoting one particular religion, in this case a form of Christianity, the “Charismatic Episcopal Church,” and criticizing or seeking to convert employees of all other religions does not involve harassment directed at particular employees because of their particular religions. The Jewish plaintiff was no more harassed by the conduct at issue than were Catholics, Muslims, agnostics, etc.

    Applied to sexual harassment, this principle requires careful examination of whether particular conduct not only is of a sexual nature (e.g. dirty joking), but whether it would be equally harsh for both men and women. Courts have been engaging in such analysis in sexual harassment cases, though in my opinion not as much as they should be.

    A second principle applied in this case sounds like an admission of a double standard: “Where a hostile work environment claim is grounded in religious hostility, courts have been particularly cautious in adhering to the principle that the hostile or offensive conduct must involve some coercive or abusive behavior.”

    The bottom line: “The workplace religious activities of [the plaintiff’s manager and his cubicle-mate], while perhaps unpleasant or disturbing, cannot in any sense be characterized as abusive or coercive. The conduct of which plaintiff complains, including . . . singing of religious songs and leaving religious passages and a Bible on his desk, and [the manager’s] “Father Jim” hat and his crossing himself before lunch, is simply not the sort of abusive behavior prohibited by Title VII. Moreover, none of this behavior was in any meaningful way directed at plaintiff because of plaintiff’s religion.

    Is this analogous to sexually-oriented conversation and joking not targeted at the plaintiff, but merely overheard by her? What about the Bible on the desk? Wouldn’t this be analogous to a Playboy centerfold on the desk in the sexual-harassment context?

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