The Ethical Dilemma: I’m Trapped in a Religious Workplace!

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Trapped In Religious Workplace: I live in a very, very religious (Christian) community. There is practically a Christian church on every corner. My employer, who I’ve been with for close to fifteen years, is a devout Christian and she has always been “ignorantly” offensive to me in her open conversations with her friends and customers that come into the business. I try to preoccupy myself when someone is being overly offensive, but often I have to interact directly with the customers and I feel as if I have to agree with them when they make very offensive, very Christian, remarks which are extremely demeaning to me.

I have this assumption about my community that if I even had the slightest suggestion that I did not believe in religion I would be burned at a stake, or at least my boss would make my job extremely hard and stressful (she’s very smart and confrontational; I am not confrontational at all). What can I do? My work skills are very specific and my health prevents me from just quitting my job and doing something that is more physically demanding like fast food (which I’m sure in my area is also run by very religious people).

Some days I feel very beat-up, and I fear saying anything about it because I will either lose my job, which I really am dependent on and have no other true options, or my boss will make my work environment ten times as stressful as it already is for me, which would not be good for me considering my current health problems (high blood pressure, partially due to stress).

What can I do?

—About To Blow Holy Smoke

Dear Smoke,

The first thing I would suggest is to get in touch with a legal expert such as those at the American Humanist Association to explore whether you might have grounds for a complaint. From what you describe here, there does not seem to be anything concrete enough for a case at this point, but you would be wise to be prepared if things escalate.

Assuming there’s no legal issue right now, your options are to leave, which you say is not practical; live with it, which you’ve been doing for fifteen years and it’s wearing you down; or find a way to modify your situation. You say your employer is “ignorantly” offensive to you, and that no one knows you are not a Christian. Perhaps no one has any idea how much their religiosity grates on you, and you are included in their chatter innocently, without malice.

Since your boss has kept you on staff for fifteen years, she may not be so quick to let you go if she learned of your views. Perhaps your legal counsel would advise that you could express your discomfort with religious overtones in the workplace and request that it cease. Then, if you were subsequently fired or harassed, you very likely would have a case. But I don’t advocate taking a risk like that unless a savvy lawyer (which I’m not) can advise you on whether and how to pursue such a course.

There’s always the possibility that you are not alone in your alienation. Other non-Christians in your workplace and community may also be keeping a low profile. Maybe if you were to speak up, a chorus of other voices would join yours.

In the meantime, look for other jobs. Consider commuting or relocating to a more liberal environment. You say your job is contributing to your health issues, so maybe a different job would help alleviate them. Until you can find a more comfortable position, continue to avoid the religiosity when you can and ignore or shrug it off when you can’t. Many (most?) people have to cope with imperfect workplaces, whether they involve a religious bent or sexism, racism, ageism, obnoxious co-workers, inept or sadistic bosses, etc. There’s also the possibility that your boss might be replaced with someone you find more compatible.

I’m wondering why you stayed in this situation for so long, and how you settled in a community like this in the first place. I suspect you have your reasons. But a word to others: If you find yourself in an intolerable situation, either find a way to make it better or find a better situation. Suffering through it, year after year, is the least palatable option.