There is a recent push for a thing called “religious liberty”. We already have constitutionally-mandated freedom of religion in the United States. As long as your religion does not involve human sacrifices or some such atrocity, you are free to believe as you will, attend the church of your choice – or not – and live your life in a manner consistent with your beliefs. What you do not have, however, is the right to force your beliefs on others. This is, in a nutshell, what the “religious liberty” movement seeks to do.
In October 2017, Ryan Coleman took a job as a painter at a construction company, Dahled Up Construction, in Albany, Oregon, about an hour south of Portland. After being hired, Coleman was told that it was a job requirement to attend Christian bible study classes. Mr. Coleman is half-Native American (Cherokee and Blackfoot) does not follow the Christian faith and had no desire to attend the classes, but the company’s owner, Joe Dahl, insisted that it was a requirement, not a request.
Coleman has children to feed, and unwilling to risk losing his job, attended the classes for a few months, but eventually became too uncomfortable with the ‘teachings’ to continue. He decided to stop attending, and he informed Mr. Dahl that he had tried, but the classes went against his own personal beliefs. Mr. Dahl’s response was, “Well, I’m going to have to replace you. You’re not going to tell me how to run my own company.”
Coleman responded with, “I’m not trying to tell you how to run your own company, but you’re not going to tell me what god to pray to.” Coleman was fired in April 2018 for refusing to follow the company mandate to attend religious classes.
Mr. Coleman has filed a lawsuit, the details of which I won’t get into here, but Mr. Dahl’s lawyers’ response is interesting, for they claim the requirement is perfectly legal since the employees are on company time and therefore are being paid to attend. That, in my book, is akin to saying that whatever an employee is asked to do while ‘on the clock’, is legal. Hmmmm … it seems to me this has the potential to open some cans of worms. So, if I order an employee to commit murder, as long as I’m paying him, it’s okay? I think not.The above chart by Pew Research Center shows global religious demographics. Note that, while Christianity has the largest following worldwide, it is far from a majority. Other religions, Islam, Hindu, Judaism, Buddhism and hundreds of lesser-known religions have equal legitimacy. Note, also, that a fairly substantial portion, 16.3%, choose to follow no religion.
The United States has laws against workplace discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment. What part of this, I wonder, did Mr. Dahl not understand?
I am all for freedom of religion – for all, not just one sect or another. I support a person’s right to run his or her business in a manner that is profitable. These two, however, need not be mutually exclusive. Why on earth anybody would think it’s acceptable to dictate the religion of his employees is beyond my comprehension! Not only that, but it is beyond the rule of law.
According to guidance by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC):
“An employee cannot be forced to participate (or not participate) in a religious activity as a condition of employment.”
This seems fairly cut and dried, and one might be tempted to be complacent in the belief that the court will rule in Mr. Coleman’s favour. But wait … this is the year 2018 … the year in which the Supreme Court decided (Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission) that a baker in Colorado, Jack Phillips, had the right to refuse to serve a gay couple based on his religious beliefs. Although in that case, the court ruling warned that there were extenuating circumstances and this decision should not be interpreted as giving other businesses carte blanche to do what Jack Phillips did, some in the Christian community seem to have disregarded that warning.
In May, Donald Trump signed an executive order, “Establishment of a White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative”, that he said would “vigorously protect religious freedom”. Taken at face value, that would indicate that Mr. Coleman’s freedom to refuse being forced to attend the Christian-based bible study courses would be protected and Mr. Dahl broke the law by terminating his employment. However, thus far it appears that Trump’s order has been interpreted to mean protecting only the Christian religions rather than all religious beliefs.
This will be an interesting case to follow. Will it end up on the docket of the Supreme Court? It’s anybody’s guess at this early stage, and one would hope that the lower courts have the good sense to see that Mr. Dahl crossed a line. But, this is the Era of Trump, the day of ‘alternative facts’, where up is down, red is green, and wrong is sometimes right. Hang on to your hats, folks.