I have a client that I speak to fairly regularly that has a receptionist who always tells me to “Have a Blessed Day” as she is transferring my call.  Although I am not particularly religious, I know that this employee is.  I also know that she means it in the nicest way possible; she truly wants me to have a blessed day.

I do not take any offense to her statement precisely because I know her motivation.  But the fact is some employees might.  Take for example the recent District of Oregon case of Griffin v. The City of Portland. In this case the Plaintiff, a Christian, alleged that her co-worker, basically lost her marbles about being “blessed” when she sneezed. 

22929706_sThe press had reported the case as simply having been brought because the co-worker complained when the plaintiff said “God Bless You” when she sneezed.  Although not quite accurate (there was more harassment alleged), that got me thinking about my client’s receptionist.  What if an atheist complained about hearing that phrase every day?  What if when the receptionist was confronted with the complaint, the receptionist said that the employer should accommodate her religious beliefs and allow her to keep saying the phrase?  Whose religious beliefs trump in this case?

If your first response was “atheism is not a religion,” ah, not so says the Federal Government.  The Government, as reported by Forbes,  recently took the position that atheists would qualify for a religious tax break.  If your second response was to clap your hands to your face and let out a scream worthy of the famous Edvard Munch painting, fear not, the EEOC has your back. Well, sort of. 

According to the EEOC Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination, employers may have to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs by allowing an employee to say “God Bless You” in the workplace.  The same guidance also says that where doing so causes a disruption in the workplace or offends customers, then maybe it is an undue hardship to the employer to grant the accommodation. 

With the EEOC stepping up its pursuit of religious discrimination cases, see for example our posts of December 30th and November 20th, employers need to be sure that they understand their responsibilities to accommodate religious beliefs and the limits to those accommodations.