The Economist: - Don’t talk (too much) about religion at work

A delicate and interesting article from Erasmus at the Economist regarding religion and its fine line in the workplace.

One man, facing cancer treatment, said she offered him a Bible and induced him to sing part of a Biblical Psalm with her.

BY HER own lights, Sarah Kuteh was evidently convinced that she was doing the right thing. But some of the patients who were interviewed by this devoutly Christian nurse, as they were being prepared for big operations, felt disturbed by her insistence on bringing up her beliefs.

One man, facing cancer treatment, said she offered him a Bible and induced him to sing part of a Biblical Psalm with her. It felt like a scene out of Monty Python, an old British comedy show, he complained later.

This week a British employment-law judge reaffirmed that a hospital in the south-east of England had been acting within its rights when it dismissed Ms Kuteh after she persisted, despite warnings, in having rather assertive religious conversations with patients. (It was sometimes part of her job to ask patients what religion, if any, they professed, but she had been told to keep such enquiries very brief.) The verdict was a nuanced one, though, which made clear that its aim was not to ban all talk of religion from the workplace.

In Britain and most other democracies, law and jurisprudence have tried to achieve a careful balance between two things: first, upholding freedom of speech, and the freedom to practise and indeed advocate one’s beliefs; and second, people’s desire to be protected from unwanted or even bullying proselytism, especially when they are in vulnerable situations. Also part of the mix is the natural concern, and indeed duty, of employers to avoid religious discord in the workplace.

In Europe, a conditional right to proselytise (in the sense of advocating the truth of one’s religion) was affirmed by a famous judgment of the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, the so-called Kokkinakis case, adjudicated in 1993. As was to be expected, lawyers for Ms Kuteh brought up that case, which vindicated a Greek Jehovah’s Witness. (He had been convicted of illegal proselytising, a criminal offence in Greece, after engaging a woman neighbour in a religious discussion which she found confusing; her husband, an Orthodox church chanter, went to the police.)

But as this week’s British ruling observed, the Kokkinakis verdict had made an important distinction between “bearing Christian witness” and “improper proselytism”. As the Strasbourg verdict specified, the latter might take the form of “offering material or social advantages with a view to gaining new members for a church or exerting improper pressure on people in distress or in need; it may even entail the use of violence or brainwashing.” And on the face of things, “exerting improper pressure on people in distress or in need” is a rather accurate description of the activities that were at issue in Ms Kuteh’s case.

In the United States, where religious faith and the sanctity of free speech are generally held in higher regard than in some parts of Europe, there is a similar struggle to achieve a balance. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that upholds anti-discrimination law, warns employers that if one worker is allowed to preach aggressively to another, that can give the targeted worker grounds to sue the bosses for allowing a hostile work environment. But in practice that doesn’t preclude a bit of casual chat about matters of belief over the water-cooler.

As part from the constitution, the key legislation in America is the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which tells bosses to give “reasonable accommodation” to their workers’ religious needs as long as doing so does not bring about “undue hardship” for the firm or organisation. A worker who creates an atmosphere of sectarian strife, or falsely implies to the world that an employer is associated with a particular faith, could certainly be accused of causing “undue hardship”, the case law suggests. This implies that a discreet religious sign at a workstation deep inside a building is okay, but a receptionist putting the same sign above the desk seen by everybody entering the premises would be out of line.

A landmark case in 1996 upheld the dismissal of a devoutly Christian worker at a firm in Richmond, Virginia, after she told her supervisor to “get right with God” and warned a subordinate that she was sinning gravely by conceiving a child out of wedlock. But gentler religious language, such as wishing fellow workers a “blessed day”, has been found to be permissible.

In American cases where the employer is the government, another consideration comes into play: the constitutional ban on the state establishment of any particular faith. In recent times this has been interpreted quite broadly to bar any overt identification by any agency of the state, whether administrative or judicial, with a particular metaphysical viewpoint. So in a case from 2001, when a nursing consultant in Connecticut was dismissed for her habit of preaching on the job, the state’s Health Department successfully used the argument that its employees had to present a religiously neutral face to the world. But bosses looking for a simple rule of thumb to handle religious issues in the work-place won’t find one. International human-rights norms, including the European Convention on Human Rights, affirm the right to manifest one’s beliefs, in public and private. Given the harsh persecution which rages in many parts of the word, that is not a trivial entitlement.

But as is noted by Tom Heys, an employment lawyer with the London firm of Lewis Silkin, “There is often a fine line between…the manifestation of a belief and its inappropriate promotion.”

The Economist: - Don’t talk (too much) about religion at work.