Religion and the Workplace

What is the role of religion in the workplace? The answer is not none…

A coworker was disciplined for asking people in his section how he could pray for them. Another was rebuked for having Bible verses on his desk. Does religion, especially Christianity, make the work environment hostile for others? How do we balance the freedom of speech for all involved. We must begin with a definition of religion. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, religion is:

1. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power(s) recognized as the creator and governor of the universe. 2. A particular integrated system of this expression 3. The spiritual or emotional attitude of one who recognizes the existence of a supernatural power(s) 4. An objective pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion

Many people would argue that Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Shintoism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism are religions. According to these definitions, however, Fascism, Communism, Feminism, Capitalism, Humanism, Atheism, and Secularism could be equally considered religions. In an absolute sense, anyone whose beliefs in any sense meet any of these definitions (if one accepts these definitions) can make demands based on their religion, and are entitled to protection based on it. Note that none of the definitions require a minimum number of adherents to qualify.

As a practical matter neither countries nor governments can accommodate every demand of every adherent of every religion, and historically nations have tended to accommodate the religion of the majority. Thus the US private and public sector have historically observed Christmas and Easter, while those sectors in Pakistan observe Ramadan.

In modern times, however, communication and transportation advances have allowed a greater mixing of cultures, and consequently an increasing sensitivity to the rights of those perceived as minorities. How cultures integrate and that they integrate is vital. Good integration results in diversity with unity; an organization that is varied in characteristics while maintaining unity of purpose and action. Poor integration results in division and fragmentation; an organization that is varied in characteristics but paralyzed with indecision and inaction. Iraq, Bosnia, and many nations in Africa are comprised of many different ethnic groups, religions and cultures, and are fractured by economic failure, civil war and genocide. One hopes that other diverse countries such as India and the United States, do not follow the same path.

Floating holidays can be a good solution, though not perfect. In a medical clinic, for example, a Muslim receptionist may not be able to work on Christmas and take another day off (even though she wants to) because the office may be closed, there may be no one else there, and there may be no work to do. Legally, the employer only has to make “reasonable accommodations”, and thus should be protected against prosecution. Other issues like garments (veils, burkhas), religious observances during work hours, etc, must be addressed for the furtherance of business goals. A business must survive to employ people, and if religious accommodation impairs the business’ ability to compete, all of its employees and customers lose. Therefore religious accommodation must be subordinate to the needs of the business. Those who object can choose to work somewhere else.

No single group should be favored in any way. At the Minneanapolis/St Paul airport, Muslim taxicab drivers refused to transport passengers carrying alcohol or those accompanied by dogs, even guide dogs, because they believed that doing so violated their religion. As independent contractors they had every right to do this, even though such actions caused complaints and controversy. Cabs wait in line to pick up passengers and if a driver refuses a passenger, he should go to the end of the line and wait again. Minnesota’s Muslim American Society suggested that drivers who would refuse passengers with alcohol or dogs could have their cabs color coded. This system to accommodate Muslim drivers would allow them to refuse passengers and not have to “go back to the back of the line”. The suggestion was not approved. It would be unfair to non-Muslim drivers, since they must go to the end of the line if they object to carrying someone for whatever reason.

After the armies of Islam conquered much of the Middle East, North Africa and Spain in the 7th and 8th Centuries, defeated peoples (who survived) were given the opportunity to convert. Muslims were the superior caste, and Christians and Jews were the inferior one. In 1995 we visited some friends in Cairo. They had ID cards labeling them as Christians, and were forbidden to hold many of the best jobs or attend the best schools. Governments must never elevate one group, Muslim, Christian, Jew or whatever, over another. In a free society private organizations can, but this is another debate. Religion in the workplace can be problematic, but if people remember that the purpose of most workplaces is business, not religion, they will be able to work out effective solutions.

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