On its face, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In an increasing number of cases, plaintiffs attempt to characterize alleged workplace discrimination against gay employees as bias involving an actually protected classification. On the flip side, other employees have alleged religious discrimination under Title VII when they believe that they have been persecuted for religious beliefs that condemn homosexuality as a sin.
In a new case from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Patterson v. Indiana Newspapers, Inc., the plaintiff was a self-described traditional Christian working for the Indianapolis Star. She alleged that her editor rejected story ideas and editorials that raised health questions regarding homosexual sex, or that criticized legalization of same-sex marriages. At one point, her editor asked the plaintiff to stop proselytizing while at work. After resigning following accusations of violation of overtime policies and a reduction in working hours, the plaintiff sued, alleging that the reasons given for her treatment were pretext for discrimination based on her Christian beliefs.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claims. The Star pointed out that a number of its editors shared the plaintiff’s religious and political beliefs, and demonstrated publication of a number of articles and editorials that criticized homosexual rights. The court limited its exploration of these conflicts over religious belief, because it found the evidence of her legitimate performance problems to be overwhelming. The Star had disciplined other employees who did not share the plaintiff’s religious beliefs for the same offenses. She simply could not prove that the termination was motivated by her religious beliefs.
Employers have a tougher time when it is clear that the employee’s expression of personal religious beliefs in the workplace is a motivating reason for a disciplinary decision. While employees are entitled to reasonable expression of these beliefs in the workplace, courts have generally upheld the employer’s ability to restrict clearly unwelcome proselytizing or expression of religious-based beliefs that harass other employees. Balancing the competing rights of employees to express religious beliefs and to be free from such expression requires a deft and diplomatic touch.