What does it take to prove a hostile work environment claim based on religious discrimination? If you are discouraged from displaying religious objects in your workplace by a supervisor of a different religion, is that enough?
A case decided in Arizona Federal District Court gives us some guidance. Marcy Rich, a training and support specialist for Arizona Regional Multiple Listing Service (ARMLS), who is Jewish, alleged that her supervisor, who is a "born again" Christian, created a hostile work environment for her. The supervisor told her she was "dead" because she did not "reveal Jesus" to herself. In addition, she placed crosses on invitations to a mandatory company holiday party, hired carolers who sang songs with Christian lyrics such as "Christ our Lord".
Rich was given a poinsettia, and she alleged that her supervisor told her that it was inappropriate to decorate her cubicle with Happy Hanukkah cards and cutouts of a dreidel and a menorah. Rich was also told by her supervisor that he thought she would have a conflict with another employee because of her religion.
Rich brought a hostile work environment claim, among other claims related to lack of promotions. The company argued that no such hostile work environment due to religion existed because her claims involved Christmas-related activities, not religion. The court disagreed, finding that Title VII defines the term "religion" to include "all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief". The court noted that although some Christmas symbols, such as Christmas trees and poinsettias, have attained assumed primarily a secular significance, it differentiated those from statements made to Rich about the birth of Christ, crosses on holiday invitations, and songs about "Christ our Lord".
As to the company's claim that the allegations were minor and not severe enough to affect the terms and conditions of Rich's employment, the court stated that harassment need not be "unendurable" or "intolerable" to be illegal. Although "some rolling with the punches is a fact of workplace life", if a reasonable employee finds the conditions of her employment adversely affected by the employer's actions which are based on religion, she has a case.
The takeaway: Religious discrimination is not always overt; it can be about symbols and practices which are imposed on employees who then are adversely affected and are made to experience a hostile work environment.