?Takeaway: Harassment based on religion is prohibited. It can be based on any of the following: an individual’s affiliation with a particular religious group; characteristics, such as dress, associated with a particular religion; the perception or belief that a person is a member of a particular religious group, whether correct or not; or an individual’s association with a person or organization of a particular religion.
?A federal district court recently refused to dismiss a former employee’s claim that a supervisor’s attempts to religiously indoctrinate her through a letter and individual meetings created a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The plaintiff asserted that in the fall of 2019, her supervisor discussed her Christian faith [GC1] with the plaintiff during one-on-one meetings. In one meeting, the supervisor told the plaintiff that she was involved in her church, taught Sunday school and did not consume alcohol or curse due to her religious beliefs. On a second occasion, the plaintiff disclosed to the supervisor that she was a practicing Hindu, with the intention to discourage the supervisor from attempting to convert the plaintiff.
In April 2020, the supervisor sent an e-mail from her personal account to the plaintiff’s personal e-mail account, asking the plaintiff to “consider that the letter is coming from a place of concern.” The plaintiff understood this letter as an attempt to convert her to Christianity, but she expressed no interest in converting.
Consequently, the plaintiff observed that the supervisor immediately began to treat her in a more hostile and dismissive manner than other non-Hindu employees. For instance, the supervisor belittled her in front of co-workers and clients; unjustly criticized the plaintiff’s performance, including subjecting her to disciplinary action; and refused to provide the plaintiff with requested support and assistance.
The plaintiff maintained that she was treated in a more hostile manner than her non-Hindu colleagues for more than a year before she was terminated by the supervisor. According to the plaintiff, she was never subjected to these alleged acts until she refused to convert.
The plaintiff brought this employment discrimination action against her employer under Title VII, contending that she was subjected to a hostile work environment and religious discrimination. To determine whether an environment is hostile under Title VII, courts consider the totality of the circumstances, including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance. Although the analysis must concentrate on the overall scenario, isolated incidents can sustain a hostile work environment if they are extremely serious.
Referencing the April 2020 letter, the court expressed that it could not “understate its severity.” The court described the letter as not constituting a mere offensive utterance, but rather “religious content that was detailed and concerning.”
Although the supervisor stated in her letter that she was not attempting to push her religious views on the plaintiff, she repeatedly asked the plaintiff where, if she were to die, she would “spend eternity.” The supervisor also detailed a “very clear path to salvation” that the plaintiff must follow to ensure that the plaintiff would spend eternity in heaven.
In sum, the court found that the plaintiff’s supervisor sought to influence the plaintiff’s religious beliefs by insinuating that she would not be in heaven should she not convert. Accordingly, the court refused to dismiss the matter, determining the supervisor’s actions were “so severe, in a religious context, as to amount to a change in the terms and conditions of employment.”
Joshi v. Public Consulting Group Inc., D. N.J., No. 22-1848 (Nov. 30, 2022).
Roger Achille is a labor attorney in the metropolitan Boston area.