Ethics and religion discussion: Should an employee be fired for their religious beliefs?

Is it okay to fire a Muslim limo driver for not helping transport a package containing wine? Is it okay to fire a Jewish cook for refusing to cook pork? Is it okay to fire a Christian carer hired to help a new mother and her six-month-old child for refusing to care for the mother after she aborted a subsequent pregnancy?

Reverend Colleen Squires, pastor at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist congregation, responds:

“No, it is not acceptable to fire someone for religious reasons. That being said, there should be clear communications before hiring someone or accepting a job if there will be certain expectations and requirements to do a job. Communication is essential in these circumstances. It is fair for an employer to make accommodations as long as they are reasonable requests. These requests cannot repeatedly cause business difficulties by proceeding to such accommodations. For example, the limousine driver could have helped with other packages by leaving the alcohol for others. The driver should not apply to work for Budweiser. An observant Jewish butcher could work in a kosher butcher shop, but not in a butcher shop that deals primarily in pork products.

Father Kevin Niehoff, OP, a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“All of these scenarios are troubling. In an article on this topic, Kwame Anthony Appiah states, “When it comes to religious differences, we don’t have to bend over backwards; but we have to bend. This act of bending requires both sides to move, and hopefully this movement will eventually be towards each other.

“No, it is not acceptable to fire a Muslim limousine driver for transporting a package containing wine! No, it is not fair to fire a Jewish cook for refusing to cook pork! No, it is not appropriate for a Christian caregiver to refuse to care for a mother who has previously aborted a pregnancy. What makes these instances unacceptable is the lack of dialogue and respect for others. Instead, the focus is on the person judging. This person forces everyone to adhere to what he believes!

Religious practice is not just a personal preference. Individuals practice a religious tradition because of something that holds them deep within. Someone does not have to agree with this belief system to respect it. Similarly, a person holding a belief system does not need to force others to believe the same thing to respect the other.

“People cross bridges when they open up to objective truth. Communication is the vehicle for crossing bridges. Let’s talk about it openly and be open to other ideas and ideals.

Linda Knieriemen, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

“These are complex situations that we see more and more as society becomes more polarized and religious and political lines lengthen. Religious beliefs and practices should be respected and accommodated as much as possible rather than creating win/lose situations. May kindness and civility prevail.

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (minister of outreach) of the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“We start with a question about someone being fired for the perceived offense of not greeting a customer appropriately. I suspect that many who read this story will feel empathy for the driver, regardless of their opinion on the main issue. Although the owner has every right to expect his employees to provide excellent service, a larger conversation should have taken place. Assuming the driver was a solid employee, otherwise a reprimand would have sufficed.

“Having said that, I certainly understand the frustration of the owner of the limo service. Is he going to have to ask each customer if he needs extra help carrying alcohol? What if a Muslim finds even driving a car with wine or beer offensive? What about non-halal meat? Pork? What if the driver knows the customer is with someone other than a spouse? These and other questions must be resolved before employment takes place.

“As for the Jew cooking pork, I would like to know more about this circumstance, real or imagined. If pork is on the menu, why would anyone (Jew, Muslim or Hindu) work on it? And the Christian caregiver is obviously not observing Jesus’ command to judge others.

“The Hindu adage, ‘When a lesser duty conflicts with a higher duty, it ceases to be a duty’ plays into all of this. Example: For many years, I volunteered at a camp for people with muscular dystrophy. Most campers need help eating. As a mostly vegetarian Hindu (with the occasional bite of fish), I have no problem cooking burgers, hot dogs, or anything else for whoever I’m serving that week. I have also heard this sentiment expressed by Hindu opinion leaders. ”

My answer:

It is important to know what the job responsibilities are before accepting a job, and one should not accept a job that violates one’s religious principles. If a person refuses to do the job they were hired to do, they can be fired. A nursing aide is hired to provide care, not to monitor the religious and moral purity of the employer. The employer, however, should make reasonable accommodations for the employee’s religious practices, even if they differ from their own.

This column answers questions of ethics and religion by putting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders from the Grand Rapids area. We would love to hear about common ethical questions that arise in your day as well as religious questions that you have. Tell us how you solved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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