Religious Accommodation: Where to Draw the Line

Question: When it comes to managing the work schedule of a business, who has the final word?

This is the question that is at the heart of the most recent dust-up at the meat packing giant, JBS Swift & Company. The problems began when around 300 Muslim workers at the company’s Greeley, Colorado plant walked off the job in a dispute over their desire to change their lunch schedule and add more breaks for prayer during the day. Their primary complaint was that the company refused to accommodate their observance of Ramadan by allowing them to take their lunch at sundown. Many of the workers, who walked off the job last Friday (Sept. 5th), were suspended. All were warned that if they failed to return to work when recalled, they would be fired. Between 130 and 150 of the workers lost their jobs.

Assimilation and American Business

One could cite this as yet another example of the need for immigrants and others that we might describe as “outside the mainstream” to assimilate to American culture and work rules. I can just imagine an Orthodox Jew going to Korea and demanding Saturdays off for religious reasons. It wouldn’t happen. Come to think of it, Orthodox Jews have a hard enough time here in the United States asking for the same thing, which is why the majority of them either work for other Orthodox Jews or are professionals or business owners who can determine their own schedules as they see fit. Those that do work in the secular world tend to spend a lot of time looking for work within the Jewish Community for precisely that reason. These folks tend to recognize the fact that the secular world is only going to go so far in accommodating them, so they make a choice—secular world employment or their religion. They choose religion and make decisions accordingly.

The record on American business and religion is one where the needs of the business have always come first. Catholic immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, were often faced with the choice of employment or celebrating their wide assortment of saint’s days. To employers, religious need was rarely a reason to miss work unless it was also a mandated holiday or one that the owner celebrated. Over time, the people adapted, assimilating into American society and learning how to work, the American way. Those that underwent this process became Americans, while those that chose not to assimilate into American culture remained stuck on the fringe.

Of course, in today’s politically correct, multicultural group-think society, people no longer want to acknowledge that basic difference between the center of American society and the fringe elements, and this is where the problem is. There is a mindset in this country that if you label something “religious” then it automatically deserves our respect and indulgence no matter how far off in left field, offensive or just plain annoying to the rest of us, it is. If you have workers that follow the religion of Santeria, for example, would you acquiesce if they wanted you to provide them with a space and time for trance channeling or animal sacrifice? These are major and important parts in their religious belief system. No? How about something a little closer to home: Would you allow Christian workers time during the work day to go around and evangelize? For many Christians, evangelism is a vital part of their faith. Doesn’t that need to be accommodated upon request? No?

Why not?

Leaving aside that that trance channeling is weird, animal sacrifice is nasty and workplace evangelism is annoying, why is it alright to limit these religious expressions? I can think of two: They are all disruptive to your workflow and they all can hurt morale among your other employees. The fact is that you are not in business to guarantee an opportunity for everyone to freely exercise their religion. You are in business to make money and an integral part of your commercial aspirations is your pool of employees working harmoniously together in a timely fashion. It is precisely because you are a business and not, say, a church, that you cannot reasonably accommodate every religious need among your workers and still get any real work done. As an employer, you have to pick and choose what you will and will not accommodate within the limits of the law. If it is vital to your business for your employees to work on a Saturday, that Orthodox Jew will have to work on the Saturday, switch shifts with a comparable worker or find another job. Why? It must be that way in order to maintain a level of fairness among your employees. No one wants to work on the weekend, so if one or two people get Saturdays off for personal reasons, you could open yourself up to trouble with those who do not.

Shouldn’t That Apply to Everyone?

If employers have a reasonable say in what religious practices they will or will not accommodate in the workplace, then don’t they have the right to say that requests for multiple breaks for a single group for prayer—or smoking or any other reason—are unreasonable? Can they not determine that it is not in the company’s best interest to change work schedules around because a single group demands it on religious grounds? Decisions like these are made every day and they are made for a single purpose—for the good of the company.

The Bottom Line

The answer to the question posed at the top of this piece is this: “The Company, for now.” JBS Swift & Company made such a decision. The company discussed it with the workers and their union, pushed the usual 9:00pm assembly line lunch break to 8:00pm to try and compromise with the workers and then, when they were told it wasn’t good enough, said “No.” Workers walked off the job, they were disciplined and some were eventually fired when they didn’t come back. Last time I looked, abandoning your job mid-shift as these workers did was called “quitting,” but the union isn’t buying into semantic games like that and neither is CAIR, the Center for American-Islamic Relations, which is trying to mediate the dispute and is threatening legal action if they don’t get their way. That is where the “for now” comes in since the courts are where most of your new and improved “rights”—you know, the ones not enumerated in the Constitution—come from.

Swift, a fine, long-standing company that employs thousands of people, could win legally, but their reputation will be forever tarnished if they go to the mat over this, which is a pity since they did nothing more than exercise their rights as employers to keep their plant running smoothly. It’s yet another reason to keep religion out of the workplace.