Why We Must Reject Special Treatment for Religious Employees

Four months ago, I began looking for two full-time employees to help my publishing business with research and sales. Before I interviewed anyone, I wrote an exhaustive job description for both positions, and mailed it to each viable candidate.

After I’d found the right duo, the contracts were signed, and I was looking forward to many pleasant office interactions — and higher revenues!

But trouble soon started when my first hire, Miriam, informed me that she is Amish, and is extremely uncomfortable around computers, iPads, cell phones, routers, and anything to do with the Internet. For religious reasons, she declined to work with technology, but offered to do research using the newspapers and books in my local library, which is still powered by an old-fashioned card catalog.

The other newcomer on my staff also threw me for a loop. Though Avram is a sales rep who was expected to frequently travel to book fairs and literary festivals, his Jewish faith came first. On his first Monday, Avram told me he won’t work or even fly on the Sabbath. As some of these crucial industry events take place on weekends, my company’s bottom line would be suffering.

Though I liked Avram and Miriam, I told them after a few weeks that it wasn’t going to work out. I gave them each a pink slip and a pretty generous check, and wished them the best.

Now I’m being sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for “violating the religious rights” of my ex-employees.

What do you think? Fair?

Okay, actually, I made all that up to force some clarity on the issue. But I didn’t really have to resort to fantasy. This kind of thing happens more and more these days — often involving the followers of Muhammad.

Consider this news from Illinois:

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued a trucking company for allegedly violating the religious rights of two former employees.

The Peoria Journal Star reports the lawsuit filed May 29 alleges Star Transport, Inc. fired two Muslim truck drivers for refusing to deliver alcohol in 2009. The lawsuit contends the company failed to provide the men “with a reasonable accommodation and by terminating them because of their religion.”

The EEOC seeks back pay and damages for the men, and a court order barring future discrimination.

And remember this?

In the latest example of religious beliefs creating tension in the workplace, some Muslims in the Twin Cities are adhering to a strict interpretation of the Qur’an that prohibits the handling of pork products. Instead of swiping the items themselves, they are asking non-Muslim employees or shoppers to do it for them.

There are also plentiful news reports about male Muslim workers who complain bitterly about having to take orders from female managers; and about employers accused of not sufficiently catering to Islamic demands for five-times-a-day prayer:

Prayer times vary daily, based on the times of sunrise and sunset. In July, the difference between the afternoon and sunset prayers can be four hours apart; in December, it’s just two hours.

The changing prayer times can be disruptive to assembly-line manufacturers that maintain assigned break schedules and can’t afford to have their workers leave their work stations at unscheduled times. Many [Somali Muslims working in the U.S.] argue that their prayers take no longer than a bathroom break, yet bathroom breaks aren’t prohibited.

I would consider that a good argument if these employees learned to void their bladders and bowels while praying. Otherwise, the bathroom breaks and the prayer pauses would obviously be cumulative, allowing Allah fans to go AWOL twice as often as everyone else. Is that what the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission calls equality?

Is it equality when Muslim public-school teachers in Denmark refuse to shake the hand of any woman, and the Ministry of Education just shrugs and looks the other way?

If, by federal decree, employees with deeply-held beliefs can claim workplace exceptions and special accommodations, why is this privilege offered only to the religious? Shouldn’t my hardcore vegetarian friend be entitled to a kitchen job at McDonald’s, and then stipulate that he won’t handle any meat products? Shouldn’t my pacifist neighbor be able to get hired at defense contractor General Dynamics and promptly announce that she won’t be complicit in manufacturing missiles and munitions?

The answer, very clearly, is no. They have no right to make such demands (but they certainly have the right to look for another position).

The same ought to be true for people with religious objections.

  • If your god tells you not to handle pork, please don’t take a job as a supermarket cashier.
  • If you god won’t allow you to transport alcohol, please don’t become a freight trucker or a cab driver.
  • If your god frowns upon your selling birth control pills, please don’t go to work at a pharmacy.
  • If your god commands you to attend religious conventions during work time, feel free to take any job you can get, but please have the courtesy to inform your employer of your pious intentions beforehand.

No matter what the EEOC tries to tell us all, religious beliefs ought to be irrelevant at work. Employers and colleagues should be forgiven for having no interest in how you express your phantasmagorical inner life — including the part where you have to take a never-ending series of extra breaks, at their expense, to satisfy your chosen superstitions.

(images via Legal Futures and Colombo Telegraph)

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.


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