In the workplace, religion becomes an increasing source of tension

Posted: Friday, January 17, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) -- By the time Carol Grotts arrived for her first day at Brink's Inc., she'd completed the company's orientation program and submitted to a background check, then had her fingers pressed into an ink pad.

She hadn't counted on the company's final question: What size pants did she wear?

Managers said ''we would never have hired you if we'd known you did not wear pants.'... But it's against my religion,'' said Grotts, hired as a uniformed guard for an armored car crew at Brink's Bartonville, Ill. office. ''For them to tell me I can't have the job, I knew that was discrimination.''

The disagreement between Brink's and Grotts, a Pentecostal Christian whose religion forbids women to wear pants, might sound isolated and unique. But her case reflects a steady rise in workplace conflicts over religion, one that predated a surge in anti-Muslim incidents since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.


Carol Grotts, 27, , stands outside the Brinks facility in Bellevue, Ill., Tuesday Jan. 14, 2003. She sued Brinks Inc., saying that their requirement for her to wear pants conflicted with her Pentecostal belief against wearing men's clothes. Grotts recently won a settlement of $30,000 against the company, including a stipulation that requires the company to teach employees about religious discrimination and ways to avoid it.

AP Photo/ Fred Zwicky

Worker complaints of religious discrimination made to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission jumped more than 20 percent last year, driven primarily by claims of retaliation against Muslims.

But in a much more gradual trend, complaints akin to Grotts', involving a broad range of religions, have slowly mounted -- up 85 percent over the past decade. Such cases make up a very small percentage of overall workplace discrimination complaints, but they are rising at a much faster rate.

The increase reflects the growing interjection of religion in the workplace, creating new challenges for employers. The change is due in large part to the nation's increasing religious diversity, but it also signals changing expectations by workers who are now more openly bringing a religious identity to the job, experts say.

''People look at religion now ... as more central to who they are and they come to work with that religious piece'' of themselves, said Chris Metzler, who directs Cornell University's equal employment studies program. ''9/11 brought more attention to it, but it's not just people who claim to be of Muslim descent. It's also people who practice less conventional religions,'' he said.

Many employers have adjusted by encouraging employees to tolerate differences, and agreeing to worker requests for adjustments in schedule and dress codes, allowing for holiday decorations or creation of onsite religious affinity groups.

But those efforts have not prevented all conflicts, many of them hinging on federal law requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers' religious beliefs.

In a survey of personnel executives released last year, 20 percent said their companies had seen worker requests for religious accommodations increase in the past five years. Just 1 percent saw such requests decline, according to the survey by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.

About one in five said their companies have seen instances of employees proselytizing to co-workers. More than a third of those surveyed said there are more religions represented in their ranks than five years ago.

Those changes may help explain the steady uptick in religious discrimination complaints to the EEOC. The agency fielded 2,572 last year, up from 1,388 complaints in 1992, with a little less than half the increase attributed to complaints by Muslims.

''You have employees of hundreds of different religions in the workplace ... and some employers are not aware of their obligations to make accommodations,'' said David Grinberg, a spokesman for the EEOC.

The changing environment has lead to uneasy confrontations.

Grotts says she offered to pay for a skirt or other alternative garment made of the same material as Brink's required uniform. But that offer was rejected, and she was fired. The company rehired her two year later, in 1999, after intervention by the EEOC, but laid her off last year, citing economic reasons.

Brink's agreed in early January to settle the case by paying Grotts $30,000, covering her attorney's fees and pledging to train all the managers at the office just outside Peoria, Ill., in religious accommodation requirements.

In another recent case, the EEOC sued the Dillard's Inc. department store chain last year for requiring a sales clerk, Sharon Conway, to work Sundays at one of its St. Louis stores although she told the company when she was hired that she is an ordained Baptist minister. The case is still pending.

Other cases are about alleged harassment.

The EEOC filed a suit on behalf of Lauren Ellerson, a black former employee at a Victoria's Secret store in suburban Philadelphia last year. The suit charges that workers mocked both Ellerson's race and her Baptist beliefs and supervisors scheduled her to work frequent Sundays after agreeing to keep such shifts to a minimum.

Some conflicts have flared over religious practices that are outside the mainstream.

In a case concluded in 2001, a St. Paul, Minn., postal worker, Robert Hurston, alleged that his co-workers and supervisors harassed him because he practices Wicca, more commonly known as witchcraft. Hurston said many of his co-workers wore crucifixes or clothes with Christian images on them that never drew a second look.

''I'd wear a T-shirt that said 'Born Again Pagan,' on it and I'd be told I couldn't wear that shirt anymore,'' said Hurston, an electronic technician, who won his case on appeal before the EEOC. ''What can I say, you can't change people's minds if they don't want to open them.''

But an attorney for the postal service said Hurston's managers acted on concerns about workplace safety and compatibility.

''Postal managers in St. Paul had employees' safety in mind when they asked Mr. Hurston to remove dangling jewelry while he was working around machinery,'' the attorney, Barbara Frazier, wrote in an e-mailed response. ''Managers had employees' sensitivities in mind when they asked Mr. Hurston to cover a shirt bearing images that female coworkers found repulsive.''

Spokeswomen for Brink's and for Victoria's Secret parent company, Limited Brands, declined to comment specifically on the charges brought against the firms. Dillard's did not respond to requests for comment.

Employers are not used to addressing the wide range of religious practices, said Georgette Bennett, president of the New York-based Tanenbaum Center. The rise of such practices is partly due to an influx of immigrants in recent years. A general aging of the population also seems to affect workplace attitudes, with researchers finding people feeling more religious as they get older, Bennett said.

Additionally, the increased politicization of religion means more workers have ''become emboldened to assert their religious rights in a way they might not have been before,'' she said.

Diversity training programs have helped smooth some tensions. But Cornell's Metzler said such efforts, if not well thought out, sometimes come back to bite companies, encouraging people to be open about their personal beliefs without foreseeing a potential backlash.

Grotts said her complaint against Brink's was more about her desire to get to work rather than attract attention to her religious identity.

''I've always been known as the girl who could work harder than the guys,'' she said. ''I feel like, as long as the job gets done, what difference does it make?''


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