God help providers accused of religious discrimination

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor

There was a time when reading Gary Larson's “The Far Side” was an essential part of my daily routine. Yes, the now-defunct strip was a bit quirky, but it was almost always good for a laugh.

I was especially fond of the “Trouble Brewing” series, in which non-complementary things were placed in close proximity (my all-time favorite: Ed's Dingo Farm and Doreen's Nursery).

I was reminded of Ed and Doreen's odd juxtaposition earlier this week, while reading a story that's anything but funny. As McKnight's reported, an appellate court overturned a religious discrimination case against a Mississippi nursing home

More to the point, the court ruled that the facility did not break the law when it fired an activities aide who refused to pray the Rosary with a resident.

So are faith-connected providers and an increasingly diverse workforce candidates for the “Trouble Brewing” portfolio? Perhaps. At the very least, the combo would seem to be a recipe for potential conflict.

It's easy to blast the Rosary-case decision as a revealing example of Mississippi-style justice, tone-deaf judges or a continuing pro-Christian bias in our courtrooms. After all, how can any employer get away with firing someone for refusing an order that violates religious principles or beliefs? It would appear the EEOC is pretty clear that this sort of thing is simply not allowed.

But as they say, the devil's in the details. In fact, the judges found that the aide did not prove the facility knew at the time of the firing that a violation of religious beliefs had occurred. That may be a fine distinction, but it's an important one.

Just so there's no misunderstanding, I am 100% against making employees do something that runs counter to their religious views or requirements. But it's one thing to insist that employers follow the law. It's quite another to ask them to be omniscient.

Put another way: If you as an employer have no reasonable way of knowing that an order violates a worker's belief system, the least that person can do is point out the conflict when you ask. That simple step can go a long way toward avoiding misunderstandings, not to mention lawsuits.

As for those who insist on the salve that only a courtroom can provide, here's some hard-won advice: Putting your faith in judges and juries is a great way to get that faith tested.

John O'Connor is McKnight's Editorial Director.

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.