Wal-Mart Harassment Policy Trumps Religious Bigotry

BY ARTHUR S. LEONARD | The US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit has ruled that Wal-Mart Stores did not violate the religious discrimination provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act when it discharged an employee for spouting religiously-inspired anti-gay bigotry on company premises during a work break.

Surprisingly, the March 30 decision from the Chicago-based appellate panel, which included Judges William J. Bauer, Richard A. Posner, and Ann Claire Williams, was unpublished.

Appeals panel in Chicago finds 1964 Civil Rights Act offers no protection for hostile words in workplace

According to the unsigned ruling, Tanisha Matthews, who describes herself as an Apostolic Christian, worked as an overnight stocker at a Wal-Mart store in Joliet, Illinois. While on a break, she took part in a heated conversation with other employees about God and homosexuality.

Another employee who participated reported to management that Matthews was “screaming over her” that God does not accept gays, they should not “be on earth,” and they will “go to hell” because they are not “right in the head.” During a company investigation of the incident, five other employees confirmed that Matthews said gays are sinners who are going to hell.

Wal-Mart managers considered these remarks to be “serious harassment” in violation of the company's “Zero Tolerance” harassment policy, which bars any conduct that could be interpreted as harassment on the basis of categories that include sexual orientation. Serious harassment is considered “gross misconduct” that is grounds for dismissal.

Matthews sued, claiming religious discrimination in violation of the 1964 Act. She pointed out that her work record up until then had been satisfactory, so it was clear she was fired for her religiously-based statements about gay people.

The district court granted summary judgment to Wal-Mart, finding there was no direct evidence of discrimination and no indication other employees received more favorable treatment. Matthews appealed.

The appeals court ruling stated, “If Matthews is arguing that Wal-Mart must permit her to admonish gays at work to accommodate her religion, the claim fails.” The court pointed out, “Wal-Mart fired her because she violated company policy when she harassed a co-worker, not because of her beliefs, and employers need not relieve workers from complying with neutral workplace rules as a religious accommodation if it would create an undue hardship. In this case, such an accommodation would place Wal-Mart on the 'razor's edge' of liability by exposing it to claims of permitting work-place harassment.”

Matthews also claimed Wal-Mart discriminated against her by not discharging other employees who participated in the conversation. The court responded that none of the other employees made comments about “someone's individual status, homosexuality or race,” and there was no evidence that Wal-Mart failed to enforce any other violations of its harassment policy.

The fact that Matthews was awarded state unemployment benefits was irrelevant to the court, which found that evaluation was based on criteria irrelevant to her religious discrimination claim.

Some religious groups have been working very hard to carve out protection under civil rights laws for employees who want to act out their religious views in the workplace, regardless of whether that adversely affects their employers' businesses. The courts have generally stood firm, at least regarding private sector workplaces, for the proposition that the employer, not the employee, is entitled to set the tone on the job. An employer that wishes to avoid having homophobia spouted in the workplace –– regardless of whether it is religiously-inspired –– can establish rules against that and legitimately enforce them.