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Employment Law

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by Bob Lawson

These days, sexual harassment cases monopolize the headlines. We are barraged with editorials, articles, and opinions about Monica Lewinsky and Kenneth Starr's investigation. A national legal debate ensued after Judge Susan Weber-Wright recently dismissed Paula Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton.

Additionally, in February 1998, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with enforcing Title VII, announced the agency's largest sexual harassment settlement with an employer; Astra U.S.A. agreed to pay approximately $10 million to about 80 women.

Further, employers are confronted with new sexual harassment theories, such as a hostile work environment based on allegedly sexually harassing e-mail.

The recent cases argued before the United States Supreme Court concerning sexual harassment have garnered most of the media's coverage of the court. In a landmark ruling on March 4, 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex harassment lawsuits are actionable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

On March 25, 1998, the court heard arguments on whether the city of Boca Raton, Fla., should be held liable under Title VII, although city officials did not know that two supervisory employees were harassing a female lifeguard.

Notwithstanding this attention, employers should not disregard the other forms of discrimination covered by state and federal anti-discrimination laws.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits any form of discrimination in the workplace based upon an individual's race, color, religion, sex or national origin. However, little attention is given to religious discrimination issues in the workplace, although it is a burgeoning area of employment law.

Like sexual harassment cases, employees' religious issues present an employer with a myriad of legal problems. In a recent case, for example, an employee claimed her employer illegally fired her on the basis of a religious belief that prevented her from getting a Social Security number.

In another case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled March 18, 1998, that Dillard Department Stores did not violate Title VII as to an employee who claimed her pilgrimage to a town in the former Yugoslavia (during the store's busiest season) was a bona fide religious belief.

Last month, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Missouri, upheld a verdict for a teacher who alleged her contract was not renewed due to her New Ageism religious beliefs. In one instance, she gave "magical rocks" to each student on the last day of class.

What is the basis for a religious discrimination claim? To state a religious discrimination claim under Title VII or the Missouri Human Rights Act, an employee must establish the following: a "bona fide religious belief"; that the belief conflicts with an employment requirement; the employee informed the employer of this belief; and the employee's employment was adversely affected by the conflict.

The courts recognize "religion" to include intensely personal convictions, the freedom "not to believe," and sincerely held beliefs which are not supported or espoused by a particular religious group. In other words, it is not necessary that an individual's belief or religious practice be widely held or recognized by others as a "religion."

Once an employee informs his or her employer of the "religious" conflict and the need for accommodation, the employer is required to discuss reasonable accommodations with the employee.

The employer, though, is not required to provide the accommodation(s) of the employee's choice; the employer is only required to discuss "reasonable" accommodation unless to do so would cause "undue hardship" on the employer's business.

Unlike the other forms of discrimination covered by Title VII, an employer can prevail on a claim of religious discrimination if that employer reasonably accommodates the employee's religious belief.

Since the number of religious discrimination charges filed with the EEOC increased significantly last year, it is easy to see that employees are raising "religious" conflicts more and more in today's workplace.

Therefore, employers should be prepared to address the host of issues about "religious practices" and "reasonable accommodations." Employers should be mindful, too, these claims can be in the form of discrimination theories based on religious harassment in the workplace and religious hostile work environment. It is inevitable that more problems and lawsuits will develop.

(Bob Lawson is an attorney with the firm of Blackwell Sanders Matheny Weary & Lombardi LLP in Springfield.)

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