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Employment Discrimination Report Discussions on Recent Legislation, Noteworthy Cases & Trends in Enforcement

The Debate on Saying “Bless You” in the Workplace

Posted in Harassment, Religious Discrimination, Title VII

As we previously noted, last week’s post Do We Live in a Society Where “Blessing” Someone is Religious Harassment? has generated a fair amount of debate.  Some of the debate has skipped straight to whether this would amount to harassment as defined by Title VII.

Some of the debate, however, has been over a more basic question.  Is saying “Bless You” even a religious expression or merely politeness?

Simon Overland, the Head of Corporate Engagement at Prolegal, falls into the “polite” camp: “I honestly don’t see that there are any religious connotations in someone saying god bless you after a sneeze. It may have had some eons ago but now….. Surely it is so ingrained in society that it is more a sign of politeness. Several people I know use “gesundheit”. Which translated is essentially just wishing you health. Oh and they’re not German.” 16727293_s

Geoffrey Mort, Of Counsel at Kraus & Zuchlewski LLP says “I have to agree with Simon. This expression has been around so long that it is devoid of any religious meaning. I’m all for the separation of church and state, but hear the sneeze response constantly and think nothing of it. “Have a blessed day” is quite another matter, as it clearly does have a religious connotation and is not a common expression at all. (I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that in New York). Employers would be well advised not to permit use of such comments, as they seem to me to cross the line.”

Geoffrey’s comment brings up a few more layers to my initial question.  Notably, where is this magic line? If anyone in the employment law universe is looking for it, I have heard it can be found around the corner from Bigfoot’s house but before you get to the end of the rainbow and the leprechauns’ pot of gold.  

I’m  not trying to be flip, well, not only trying to be flip, but this is a legitimate problem that HR professionals face in defining which conduct crosses the line.  Although case law can be helpful in deciding where to draw that line, there is no magic bright line test.

The second issue Geoffrey’s comment brings up is does it matter what someone’s intention is when they say “bless you.”  Is it an automatic response of politeness, sort of like what your mother hopes “please” and “thank you” are to you, or did the person mean to “bless you?”  Does it matter? 

Under the legal definition of harassment, it does not matter.  When a plaintiff is proving a harassment case, the plaintiff does not have to prove that the harasser intended to harass. As part of the burden of proof, the plaintiff merely has to prove that he or she believed the conduct was harassing.   Before employers freak out, there are other burdens that must be met to prove harassment, but proof of intent is not necessary.

What do you think, is saying “Bless You” a religious expression?