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Employee Religious Beliefs Can Conflict with Employer Values

Diverging Values

What if your religious beliefs as an employee are in conflict with the organization’s basic values? Does it have to accommodate you anyway? Maybe, according to a recent Pennsylvania case.

What if your religious beliefs as an employee are in conflict with the organization’s basic values? Does it have to accommodate you anyway? Maybe, according to a recent Pennsylvania case, Shepherd v. Gannondale, No. 1:14-cv-8 (W. D. Pa., Dec. 22, 2014).

In this case, Gannondale was a nonprofit Catholic organization and ministry that provided therapeutic and residential care. But its status as a religious organization was totally irrelevant to this case. The ministry had adopted a model suggested by the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare, called the Sanctuary Model, to create an organizational culture that would support trauma victims. This Model promoted certain values, which were implemented in community meetings. At the meetings, participants were asked seemingly innocuous questions like, “How are you feeling? What is your goal for the day? Who can help you achieve that goal?”

Shepherd is a Jehovah’s Witness who objected to attending the meetings and to these statements because they were related to the Seven Commitments of the Sanctuary Model (nonviolence, emotional intelligence, social learning, open communication, democracy, social responsibility, and growth and change). Gannondale did not assert any religious grounds for the Seven Commitments. While we all know people who would object to this Model on the grounds that it was touchy-feeling, annoying, boring, and nosy, Shepherd objected because she does not believe in some of these Commitments, like “growth and change” and democracy, on religious grounds. She stated that she could not attend the meetings because of her religion.

Initially, Gannondale let Shepherd skip the meetings. Eventually, Shepherd was told that she had to attend the meetings or lose her job. Shepherd’s job was posted, a replacement was hired, and Shepherd filed a complaint. 

Gannondale was not able to show that Shepherd’s proposed solution that she not attend the meetings was a hardship. The fact that Shepherd was a bookkeeper and not a therapist may have made a difference. The court held that Shepherd had stated her initial case of religious discrimination and failure to accommodate, and refused to grant summary judgment for Gannondale.

How could this have gone better for Gannondale? It could have shown that it was important for every single person to attend meetings (which would have been hard since other people also skipped for various reasons). It could have thought through and been able to show at what point employee nonparticipation would really create a hardship in the organizational culture. It could have been consistent in how it treated Shepherd. It could have had a conversation with Shepherd about accommodation. For instance, perhaps it could have allowed Shepherd to answer the questions in a limited way—perhaps she could have addressed the Four or Five Commitments that worked for her. Gannondale also could have made its status as a religious organization relevant by establishing its own religious values and beliefs that employees were required to embrace, as it would have been permitted to do under Title VII. 

Conflicts between religious values (on either side), and organizational or personal values must be handled carefully and thoughtfully—perhaps by asking the employee how she is feeling and what her goals are. By understanding why an employee’s religious beliefs may conflict with an employer’s values, employers may be better able to provide accommodations that support values on both sides and help avoid escalation.

 
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