Real responses to real-life questionsJoseph Flesh, CEO of healthcare technology company Purple Binder offers his response to the MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the author's personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.
I work for a large nonprofit. We have many kinds of people with a variety of backgrounds and apparently, some far out religious beliefs.
One of my co-workers is a Wiccan and Halloween is a big deal to her. She says it’s the Wiccan New Year. She has decorated her cubicle with pentagrams and symbols representing some deity she worships. I complained to our CEO. I don’t want to look at this junk and I am going into a satanic panic!
The CEO says that the only way to require Ms. Wiccan to take her decorations down would be for every employee to remove any religious symbols they have in their workspaces also. My colleagues would have to remove crosses, several Star of David paperweights, printed prayers, art with the star and crescent, religious books — even a little Buddha on our CFO’s desk that he brought back from India!
This seems unfair to me. These are our personal cubes and Christians, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists practice real religions with extensive histories and sincere beliefs. I'm sure this girl is going through some crazy phase and bringing dark symbols and ideas into our workplace.
I don’t care what she believes but I don’t want to be exposed to this. Do we have to make accommodations for her beliefs?
Joseph says ...
On one hand, it seems like you don’t take your co-worker’s religious expression seriously since it’s just some “crazy phase.” But on the other hand, you say that the symbols she’s posted are sending you into a “satanic panic.”
If it is just an attention-getting phase, as you suggest, then perhaps you shouldn’t play into it further. Regarding the "satanic panic" that you feel, your best course of action might be to consult with a member of your clergy.
But your CEO is correct here. Rules in the workplace must apply equally to everybody, and it is not an employer’s place to judge the sincerity of religious beliefs.
Clearly, you value diversity and freedom of religious expression in your workplace. If you think that freedom of religious expression is important, then you need to accept some discomfort in support of that principle. There isn’t much of a middle ground here without bringing personal judgment into the mix. And in this case, where judgment enters, prejudice is sure to follow.
Consider that some of the religious symbols in your office may already cause discomfort. For instance, Muslims believe that images of deities are forbidden, yet your CFO has a Buddha statue on their desk.
By way of context, I am religious and Jewish. Religious freedom is dear to me. If it ever became ok to ban religious expression of any kind due to someone's discomfort, then who's to say that I wouldn't be next to be banned?
For better or for worse, discomfort is the price we pay for freedom of expression in an open society! Personally, I’d say it’s a small price for the benefits that we reap.