Question: I work at a small, family-owned business. We have a company meeting every month to discuss our goals, progress, new initiatives, and so on. The company's owner has started opening these meetings with a short reading from the Bible; he chooses a passage that he feels is relevant to our work. This seems pretty harmless to me, but a few of my coworkers are really upset about it. They aren't Christian and they feel like they shouldn't have to listen to someone else's religious beliefs at a meeting where their attendance is required. It is really souring them on working here. Are there any legal rules about this?
Answer: There certainly are legal rules about religion in the workplace. Title VII, the primary federal law that prohibits discrimination and harassment, protects employees from discrimination based on their religion. Employers may not make job decisions based on an employee's religious beliefs (or lack of religious beliefs). For example, an employer may not refuse to hire Mormons, promote only Muslims to management positions, or target Catholic employees for layoffs.
Employers also must make reasonable accommodations for their employees' religious beliefs and practices. Often, these accommodations involve shift or schedule changes, breaks during the workday for prayer or other religious observances, or changes to uniforms or dress codes to allow religious garb.
The right to religious freedom is a founding principle of our country. However, it can be a complicated right to apply when different religious beliefs clash or when one person's religious beliefs conflict with another's lack thereof (atheism is also protected). Employers have the right to express their religions, even at meetings and other workplace events. At the same time, however, an employer can't require employees to participate in particular religious practices or observances.
In this situation, your coworkers may be entitled to reasonable accommodation for their own beliefs. If they object on religious grounds to hearing Bible passages, they can ask to skip the start of the meeting. Your employer must allow this unless it would create undue hardship for the company. Undue hardship usually refers to additional expenses or other types of administrative costs. It's difficult to see how allowing your coworkers to arrive a few minutes late to the meeting would impose undue hardship.
Keep in mind that Title VII applies to private employers with at least 15 employees. If your company is smaller, it might be covered by a state or local law prohibiting discrimination. Virtually every state has such a law, and some cover companies with fewer employees. To learn more about your state's law, select it from Nolo's page Your Rights Against Workplace Discrimination and Harassment. You can also contact your local government to find out about municipal or county discrimination laws.