Beware Religious Discrimination Claims

By Ralph R. Smith, 3rd, Esq.

An often overlooked aspect of anti-discrimination laws is the restrictions placed on any kind of employment related discrimination due to an employee’s religious membership or beliefs.  Both Title VII and New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) contain broad bans on this type of workplace discrimination.  Employers must remind their employees of such prohibitions, or otherwise, you could end up like the employer in the recent case of Nappe v. Holland Christian Hope Association, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 112537(D.N.J. 2015) who faced a wrongful discharge religion discrimination claim arising out of comments made by coworkers and a supervisor who criticized and belittled an employee’s religious membership as a Roman Catholic.

Plaintiff was a probationary employee who worked on HVAC and other building maintenance projects for the Defendant facility, which was not affiliated with any particular religion.  The employee claimed that during the course of his employment, co-workers in the maintenance department  frequently made derogatory comments about Catholicism and Plaintiff’s membership in that religion, including at one point allegedly calling it a “Mickey Mouse” religion.  Along with those frequent derogatory comments, Plaintiff also claimed that on a number of occasions he similarly would get unsolicited brochures about his coworker’s places of worship that were frequently found in his work locker.

On approximately the 60th day of his employment, Plaintiff was terminated.  The employer claimed that the discharge happened because of work related deficiencies in Plaintiff being unable to perform certain required tasks and for his being involved in a workplace altercation with a coworker.  Plaintiff claimed in this lawsuit that the termination occurred because of his religion.  To support the claims of religion discrimination he brought under both Title VII and the LAD, Plaintiff maintained that his supervisor said at the time of his firing that Plaintiff did not “fit” into the department because he was “not of the Christian faith” and that if Plaintiff was “to convert” from Catholicism, he could probably “help him.”

Defendant moved for summary judgment seeking dismissal of the discrimination claims, arguing in part that there was no evidence supporting the allegations of religion discrimination.  In denying the employer’s dismissal request as it related to the Title VII claim, the court found that the alleged comments attributed to the Plaintiff’s supervisor were enough to create a material factual dispute that prevented the court from granting any dismissal of the claim.  The Court did however dismiss the religion discrimination claim brought under the LAD because it was filed beyond the claim’s required statute of limitations.

To ensure that your workplace never has to encounter the kinds of issues addressed in this case, it is vital that all workplace decisions are made for legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons and that personal views about an employee’s religious beliefs are kept out of the decision making process.  Furthermore, employees must be trained on the dangers of all forms of workplace harassment and discrimination which run afoul of the requirements of either Title VII or the LAD.  If you have not done any recent anti-harassment training, now is a good time to do so with 2016 just a few short weeks away.