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Religious Accommodation Does Not Require Modification of Zero Tolerance Policy on Harassment of Gay Employee

    Client Alerts
  • May 06, 2011

Last month, EmployNews reported a Fourth Circuit decision that separated an employee's political beliefs from his religious ones for purposes of a Title VII religious discrimination complaint. A new decision from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals provides further support for employers faced with claims that religious beliefs require employees to adopt certain views with respect to other employees' lifestyles.

In Matthews v. Wal-Mart Stores, the plaintiff was an Apostolic Christian who was terminated after informing a gay co-worker that God does not accept gays, and that she was going to hell. Wal-Mart terminated the plaintiff under its zero tolerance harassment policy, which includes harassment based on sexual orientation. The plaintiff claimed that Title VII required Wal-Mart to accommodate her comments because they did not rise to the level of a hostile and offensive working environment.

The Seventh Circuit quickly rejected this argument, affirming summary judgment for Wal-Mart. In its decision, the court stated that the zero tolerance policy was applied neutrally, and not based on religion. To require Wal-Mart to tolerate violations of the policy could have exposed the company to lawsuits from employees exposed to this conduct, and would constitute an undue hardship under Title VII.

This is one of a number of federal cases that have rejected religious opposition to gay-friendly workplace initiatives. Courts have generally concluded that the legitimate business reasons for adopting such polices outweigh employees' religious based objections to homosexuality.