The Bottom Line
A Fine Line
Alan J. Reinach
The good news: I don’t know of any ASI members who incorporate their faith in their businesses who have been sued for religious discrimination or harassment. The bad news: Nearly any amount of religious speech or activity in the workplace can expose a business owner or professional to such claims, whether or not they are valid. Defending against unfounded claims can be quite expensive. While eliminating the risks of being sued is impossible, one can integrate faith and business without inordinate risk. Here’s what you need to know:
Hiring: Employment discrimination is governed by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, broadly prohibiting discrimination—hiring, promotion, termination, etcetera. A business cannot refuse to hire someone on account of their faith. Only religious non-profits are entitled to consider an applicant’s religious affiliation in employment decisions. It is unlawful even to inquire as to an applicant’s faith.
On the job: Can you invite employees to gather for prayer at the start of the day? Yes. But if you do, you must make it clear that it is purely voluntary. If someone is made uncomfortable by the practice, you may wish to discontinue it. You need to also make sure the non-participant has no cause to complain about their treatment.
Can you share your faith in the workplace? Yes, but as an employer there is an inherent imbalance of power. Employees may not feel they can tell you if they don’t want to hear it. So they may feel harassed, even if they don’t signal their discomfort. Best practice: Don’t talk about your faith unless you are asked. It is always permissible to answer questions.
Can you conduct a lunch-time Bible study? Yes. But you should have written policies making it clear that attendance is purely voluntary. A better practice is to conduct Bible studies outside of the workday, after everyone has left.
What is the best witness in the workplace? It is not faith talk, but modeling the spirit of Christ in the way you relate to others. Provide pay and benefits as generous as business conditions will permit, and treat employees as valued members of the business. Conduct periodic performance evaluations. Written discipline policies are best and should be applied consistently. If you need to terminate someone’s employment, be sure that person knows there is a good reason. Conduct an exit interview with a trusted third person present, and solicit the employee’s perspective. Do not give negative employment references, but simply give a “neutral reference,” i.e., dates of employment, job title, and rate of pay.
In twenty years of ministry, very few business owners have ever contacted the Church State Council for assistance with these issues. Reported decisions of religious harassment are very few. Go forward in faith, walk in the Spirit, and fulfill your mission to live the life of Christ in your business.