Cursing as Religious Discrimination

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Cursing as Religious Discrimination

Everybody curses at work, some more than others. Most people deal with it as background noise, but what if it is more than that? Can the use of salty language constitute religious discrimination or harassment? It all depends on the context.

A recent Oregon case provides some guidance (Kellymarie Griffin v. City of Portland). Ms. Griffin is a "devout Christian" whose faith is "the most important thing in [her] life". She alleged that her co-workers frequently used profanity in the office, and that this language was offensive to her because of her religious beliefs.In one particular incident, a co-worker sneezed loudly, and another exclaimed "Jesus Christ". Ms. Griffin indicated her displeasure, and then another co-worker said "I'm sick of your Christian attitude, your Christian [expletive] all over your desk, and your Christian [expletive] all over the place".Ms. Griffin then filed a religious discrimination complaint.

The city alleged a complete lack of hostile intent on the part of the co-workers as one of their defenses. Current case law provides that to constitute a valid discrimination claim, the conduct must have occurred "because of" the plaintiff's protected status, in this case, her religion. But does this mean that a lack of hostile intent is a valid defense for the employer? Not according to this court. Comparing it to sexual harassment, the court quoted approvingly of another case in which a federal court noted that conduct may constitute sexual harassment even when the harassers do not realize that their conduct creates a hostile work environment because even when well-intentioned compliments can result in a woman feeling uncomfortable in the workplace.Thus it is possible that Ms. Griffin's co-workers were creating a hostile work environment.But that fact alone is not sufficient for a claim. There must be a showing that there was religious discrimination as well.

Whether the hostile statements were made "because of" Ms. Griffin's religion is a question of fact for a jury to decide, according to the court. If they were, then Ms. Griffin could prevail (although the court expressed doubt that a jury would find so).

So what is the moral? Context is all important. Seemingly innocuous statements, although generally harmless, can be considered discriminatory when the full workplace context is taken into account.

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