Thou shalt not when can religion be considered in employment?

 Iowa Employment and Labor Law Dickinson Law Firm Des Moines, Iowa

Posted on 08/26/2011 at 10:56 AM by The Newsroom

If an employer has strong religious beliefs, can those beliefs be imposed on employees?  Your shop and your rules, right?  Not so.  Religion is a protected class under Iowa and federal employment laws and cannot be used as a basis for forming employment decisions unless the employer is a religious institution and the qualifications are related to a bona fide religious purpose. Local recent media coverage has highlighted the employee requirements of an Iowa daycare and preschool affiliated with an evangelical Christian church.  While the application recites that as an employer, it “does not discriminate on the basis of sex, color, race, nationality or ethnic origin,” the application also states, “All employees must be practicing Christians and active members of an evangelical Christian Church.”  Another section of the application explores the applicant’s “spiritual preparation” and asks questions such as where the applicant attends church and for how long, if he or she attends regularly, the activities in which the applicant participates at church, “how you came to know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior,” whether the applicant ever practiced another religious faith other than Christianity and whether the applicant has “ever led someone to Christ.” The section of the application that appears to be drawing the most attention in Des Moines media is the “Christian Lifestyle Commitment” in which the requirements for on-duty and off-duty behavior of employees are detailed.  These requirements include: being a born-again Christian, no extra-marital or pre-marital sexual relationships or cohabiting with a person of the opposite sex who is not an immediate family member, no homosexual or bi-sexual activity, no viewing of pornographic materials and abstaining from alcohol (or at least monitoring consumption to avoid intoxication).  The application notes that these requirements are in line with church tenets. So, can a daycare legally impose such requirements?  Yes, as long as it is a “bona fide religious institution” meeting the exceptions to the Iowa Civil Rights Act, Section 216.12(1)(a), and to Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Specifically, the Iowa Civil Rights Act spells out an exception for “any bona fide religious institution with respect to any qualifications it may impose based on religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity, when the qualifications are related to a bona fide religious purpose.”  Similarly, Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 allows institutions whose “purpose and character are primarily religious” to give employment preference to members of their own religion.  The daycare and preschool’s curriculum and programming is asserted to be according to church principles; therefore, requiring employees involved in that curriculum to conform to such requirements arguably meets the religious exception. What does this mean for Iowa employers?  An employer that is not a bona fide religious institution “shalt not” discriminate based upon religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.  Additionally, those employers should be wary of blanket restrictions on off-duty behavior of employees.  Why do religious institutions have the ability to do things other private employers “shalt not”?  It all started with something known as the separation of church and state.

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