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Religion and Sexual Orientation Diversity: When Values Collide 02-26-2004
- By Ann F. Kiernan

OK, managers, how would you handle this workplace dilemma?

Like all good employers, your company has a well-publicized non-discrimination and anti-harassment policy. Management decides to promote diversity by putting up posters showing five different company employees, captioned "Black", "Old", "Gay", Blonde" or "Hispanic", and slogan "Diversity is Our Strength." One of your employees thinks that homosexual conduct violates Biblical commandments, so he posts Bible verses referring to Sodom and calling same-sex relations an "abomination" in large type on the overhead bin in his cubicle, clearly visible to co-workers and visitors. He says he hopes his gay and lesbian coworkers will read the passages, and be hurt enough to repent and change their ways.

Do you:

  1. Ignore the Bible verses. He's entitled to display his religious beliefs in his own cubicle.
  2. Remove the verses. They do not show respect for the sexual orientation of other employees and therefore violate company policy.
You know the answer: B. But that's not the end. The employee protests, claiming that the diversity campaign targets heterosexuals and religious fundamentalists, and re-posts his signs. He offers a compromise: If the company takes down the "Gay" poster, he'll take down his scriptural passages.

Now what do you do (after consulting with your HR department, of course)?

  1. Agree with the employee. Taking down the "Gay" poster is a reasonable accommodation of his right to express his sincerely-held religious beliefs.
  2. Fire him for insubordination. Allowing his anti-homosexual materials to remain posted is an undue hardship because it undermines the company's efforts to attract and retain a qualified, diverse and tolerant workforce.

Did you pick B again? Right! That's what a federal appeals court held in a January 2004 opinion. The court held that the employee had been fired not for his religious beliefs, but because he attempted to sabotage the company's anti-harassment policy and refused direct instructions to take down his "demeaning and degrading postings."

To protect yourself and your company:

  1. Make sure all employees are trained on your company's anti-harassment policy.
  2. Inspect the workplace from time to time, and remove any cartoons, posters, etc. that violate the policy.

Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard Co., ___ F.3d ___, 2004 U.S. App. LEXIS 72 (9th Cir. 2004)

Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.
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