Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Can a cashier or clerk wish a customer “Merry Christmas”?

Must a pharmacist dispense birth control devices if his faith forbids it?

Can a Muslim clerk refuse to touch a whisky or beer bottle, or a pork chop?

Disputes between retailers and employees over religious beliefs in the United States can be traced back to the Puritans, who established laws that retail stores must not open on Sundays. Hundreds of years later, retailers are still dealing with how to address an employee’s religious practices.

Religious discrimination complaints to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have been rising over the past 10 years. Last year, the EEOC received 2,541 complaints, up 48 percent from 1,709 in 1997.

The commission has found that about 60 percent of the cases have “no reasonable cause” and about 4 percent to 10 percent do have a reasonable cause.

In Minnesota, Target has been the subject of scrutiny since a Minneapolis Star Tribune reported earlier this month that some Muslim supermarket cashiers ask non-Muslim co-workers or customers to scan pork products for them. They’re following a strict interpretation of the Koran, which forbids touching pork products.

Unlike the Puritans, today’s workers are armed with Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace. Under it, employers are required to make “reasonable accommodations” for an employee’s religious beliefs. “Reasonable” is defined as something that doesn’t create “undue hardship” on the employer or co-workers.

The law leaves room for interpretation. When an accusation of religious discrimination is filed against a company, it often becomes news.

“The wording of Title VII is pretty broad. It’s up to the courts to decide in many of these issues,” says Matthew McReynolds, a staff attorney at Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento, Calif., legal-assistance group that represents individuals in civil liberties cases, including religious discrimination issues.

Other recent incidents, which haven’t all led to lawsuits, include:

• Former employee Alicia Hedum sued Starbucks earlier this year, saying she was scrutinized and fired for wearing a Wiccan cross. She says co-workers in the Oregon coffee shop were allowed to wear Christian crosses. Starbucks, in court filings, denied the claim.

• A Christian woman in California says her religious beliefs prevented her from using alcoholic beverages so she couldn’t handle alcohol in a Rite-Aid warehouse. The case was settled by the woman with the help of Pacific Justice Institute. Mr. McReynolds, of Pacific Justice Institute, says he couldn’t discuss the settlement because there’s a strict confidentiality clause.

• Drugstore chains such as Walgreens, CVS, Rite-Aid and recently, Kroger, have had to clarify company policy on dispensing contraceptives after newspapers reported that some pharmacists refused to fill the prescriptions because of religious or moral principles.

• In 2005, Wal-Mart instructed employees to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” prompting boycotts from Christian groups. Last year, Wal-Mart reversed its decision.

• Kimberly M. Cloutier sued her employer, Costco, saying the company wrongly fired her for refusing to remove a facial piercing. She said she was protected as a member of the Church of Body Modification, which cites “spirituality” in altering the body. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston upheld a lower court’s ruling for Costco in 2005.

• In Minneapolis, the airport authority is considering tightening restrictions on taxi drivers who refuse to take passengers carrying liquor, wine and beer. Taxi drivers who serve the airport, roughly three-quarters of whom are Muslim, say “facilitating” alcohol use is against their religious beliefs. Drivers refuse to take about 100 passengers each month at the airport, many for carrying alcohol. The Metropolitan Airports Commission plans to vote next month on suspending a taxi driver’s license for 30 days for refusing a passenger carrying alcohol and revoking the chauffeur’s license on the second occurrence, spokesman Patrick Hogan says.

The most common religion-related request to retailers is a day off for religious holidays, followed by requests to break dress code, says Dan Butler, vice president of merchandising and retail operations at the National Retail Federation, a Washington trade group.

“Retailers certainly want to accommodate legitimate religious beliefs,” Mr. Butler says. “But it’s also something that the employee should cover with managers — ideally during the interview process. If you don’t bring up an accommodation you may need, they may not be legally bound to accommodate it once you’re in the job.”

In the Minneapolis case, Target said Tuesday that religion is not an issue for most of its stores. “As we become aware of situations, we will address them on a case-by-case basis,” spokeswoman Paula Thornton-Greear says. Employees are given options including working in another position in the store or at another store.

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