The Ethical Dilemma: I Had to Leave My Overtly Religious Work Environment. Should I Sue?

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Resigned to Faithlessness: I have separated from an employer due to differing religious opinions. My employer found out from a co-worker that I was not a believer in any religion and from that point forward was cold and made a point to single me out whenever things did not work out the way he wanted. His business is run with religion on its sleeve. Every morning, all the employees are gathered for a meeting and at the end the owner leads everyone in a prayer to God for the day. I asked to not be included in the prayer but received very cold responses and obvious disapproval from my boss. There were many instances where religion was discussed openly at the business and it was very uncomfortable for me because some of the negative comments were subtly directed at me.

In one instance, this situation with homophobic comments on Duck Dynasty and A&E were being discussed. I got tired of hearing the bickering and stated that having the right to free speech does not protect you from personal consequence from your employer if you reflect badly on them. Being that A&E is openly pro-equality, it makes sense that they would be embarrassed and take action against what was said. At this point an argument about the “war on Christianity” started and I said I would respectfully bow out of the conversation because it was not productive or relevant to my work. At around midnight that night my boss sent me a very long, condescending, and rude e-mail to my personal e-mail account telling me I was wrong and basically preaching at me. It made me very uncomfortable but I did not know what to do about it. The tension between my boss and me mounted and it was clear I was not wanted in his very Christian business, so I left.

My question is how much of this is illegal and should anything be done/have been done about it? It was very uncomfortable to work with the obvious discrimination against my lack of religious affiliation or beliefs.

—Bowed Out Instead Of Bowing Down

Dear Bowed,

I checked with the American Humanist Association’s legal counsel and was advised that you should waste no time in seeking a lawyer who specializes in workplace discrimination and harassment. If you have a case, it would go through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and since there is a statute of limitations of 180 days (more if it’s a violation of state as well as federal law), you need to act fast. Although you could submit a case on your own, it would be wise to have representation by someone savvy in this field.

As far as a legal case goes, your position might be stronger if you had not resigned. But the fact remains that raising a complaint at your place of work almost surely will make it even more difficult to get along with your boss and like-minded co-workers. Being the odd person out in one workplace can also make it more difficult to land your next job, since you’ll need references and a good reputation. So I hope you already had something lined up before you left.

If you live in a very religious community, it can be exhausting to counter religion in the workplace (and beyond). Although it’s important for people to stand up for secularism, it may not be worth sacrificing your livelihood. You have to pick your battles, not simply take a bullet for the A-Team.

On the other hand, if your boss’s religious nature is not so universally embraced, he may find himself unable to attract and keep good employees because they refuse to be subjected to his bunk. It would be sweet if you could join a more secular competitor—or start your own company—and leave your old boss praying for business and workers to take care of it. But whatever you do, what goes around comes around. One day he may regret mistreating you.

In the meantime, your best bet is to find employment in an environment that suits you better. No one thrives on a daily dose of bitter pills. You may be able to do more about the situation with your ex-boss, such as speaking out, now that you’re not relying on his paychecks and coping with hostility on all sides from your coworkers. And even if there’s nothing you can do about them, you can now more fully and freely do things for you. If you do pursue legal action, please let me know how it turns out.