Can Employers Prohibit Employees From Expressing Their Religious Views in the Workplace?

September 1, 2010

By: Subhash Viswanathan

An interesting case from the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky addresses a particularly difficult religious accommodation question: at what point can an employer prohibit an employee from expressing religious views in the workplace? According to the Court’s opinion, the case involved a nurse employed by the University of Louisville’s medical center. Based on her reading of portions of the Bible, the employee believed she had calculated the date for either the end of the world or the coming of the Antichrist, 12/21/2033. She also believed that she was compelled by her religion to share her views and her calculations with her co-workers. The co-workers complained to their manager that the employee would not stop talking to them about the subject, even when they asked her not to, and that she was scaring them. The manager had a conversation with the employee and told her to stop or face discipline. Although the employee was not disciplined, she submitted her resignation as a result of the conversation.

In granting the Hospital's motion for summary judgment, the Court first noted that the employee could not establish a prima facie case of failure to accommodate her religious beliefs because she had failed to show the employer took any adverse action against her. The Court went on, however, to conclude that even if the employee had been disciplined, she could not state a failure to accommodate claim, because the employer was not required to accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs under these circumstances. Although the case was brought under Kentucky state law, the Court relied on federal court precedent in Title VII cases to find that an employer does not have an obligation to accommodate an employee’s desire to impose her religious views on co-workers by harassing them. Were an employer required to provide such an accommodation, it would create an undue hardship because it necessarily infringes on the rights of co-workers.

This does not mean, of course, that an employer can prohibit all forms of religious expression in the workplace. But where the employee’s expression consists of attempting to proselytize co-workers who object to the conduct, and amounts to harassment, the employer can ask the employee to stop, and if she does not stop, impose discipline.