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People's Law Guide


Religious Discrimination: The Devout, Atheists & Agnostics All Have Rights



      Ahamad Abu-Aziz, a former United Airlines mechanic, was awarded $300,000.00 for his emotional pain and suffering and lost wages by jurors who heard him describe how fellow employees slurred his religious practices. The Oakland, California jury also awarded Abu-Aziz an additional $2.6 million in punitive damages.

      In Seattle, jurors awarded $100,000 to Nancy Farnam, who had worked in a nursing home operated by Crista Ministries. Farnam claimed that co-workers mocked and harassed her religious views about removing feeding tubes from vegetative patients. Farnam quit her job, she told jurors, because coworkers created intolerable work conditions.

      Philip Lepor, a San Diego dentist who sued Safeguard Health Plans, testified that managers fired him on the day before he was to take leave to observe Jewish holidays. Lepor stated he received superior performance evaluations and that he requested leave three weeks prior to being fired. An arbitrator awarded Lepor more than $124,000 plus additional sums for attorney's fees when disbelieving management claims of not knowing that Lepor wanted time off. 

      Florida law, as well as federal law, prohibits private organizations with 15 or more employees from engaging in religious discrimination. All governmental employers are barred from committing religious bias.

      Accommodating Religious Practices:

      Federal and state laws do more than prohibit employers from considering religious beliefs when making staffing-related decisions such as hiring, promoting and disciplining.  Employers and labor unions must make efforts to "reasonably accommodate" their employees' religious observances and practices, unless able to demonstrate "undue hardships" would occur. 

      Employers are also barred from imposing additional requirements on workers receiving religious accommodations. For example, Pyro Mining Company of California was found to have illegally required a worker who sought Sundays off for sabbath assistance to obtain scheduling exchanges without aid from his employer.

      The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidelines require employers to provide reasonable accommodations in a wide variety of circumstances, including when:

         * Religious obligations conflict with work schedules. 
         * Dress or grooming standards clash with religious beliefs.
         * Objections to medical examinations run afoul of spiritual beliefs.  An employee who sincerely believes that his or her religion prohibits or requires certain activities is entitled to accommodations, even when the religion lacks such formal rules.  The teaching of weekly bible classes and a Jewish employee's attendance at his wife's conversion ceremony have been among the religious practices receiving court protection, even though these events are not required by the workers' religions.

      “Non-Believers” Also Protected:

      While most people know that anti-discrimination laws protect adherents of “mainstream” or “traditional” religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, many are not aware that these same laws safeguard workplace rights of persons holding  “sincere beliefs” in faiths which are “new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others.”  Atheists and agnostics are also protected by Federal and Florida laws, because employers are not permitted to treat employees or applicants more or less favorably because of beliefs about religion. 

      Although Federal law places limits on how much money can be awarded for emotional pain and suffering in job bias cases, Florida's own laws don't impose this restriction. That's why complaints of religious discrimination should be filed with the Florida Commission on Human Relations, as well as with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
To preserve their legal rights, employees having complaints of anti-religious bias must file charges of discrimination with governmental agencies within relatively short time periods. Since governmental agencies file few discrimination lawsuits, employees are permitted to hire private attorneys to seek legal recourse against employers they believe discriminated against them.

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