Human Resources News & Insights

Does offering bagels and cream cheese constitute ‘proselytizing’?

In this holiday season, a case which reminds us of just how complicated all this diversity stuff can get:

The management team of the Staff Bridge unit of the Colorado Department of Transportation was discussing the scheduling of its annual employee appreciation luncheon.

Behrooz Far,  noted that the luncheon was scheduled during the observance of Ramadan and requested that the luncheon be rescheduled so that one of his subordinate employees, an observant Muslim, could attend.

An alternative date was proposed, and Staff Bridge engineer Mark Leonard  approved the change of date and asked administrative assistant David Ross to notify employees.

Subsequently, Ross told Leonard that rescheduling the luncheon ran counter to his religious beliefs, and asked to be relieved of any responsibility for coordinating the event.

The event was held on the new date; Ross didn’t attend.

An unwanted invitation

Eight days later, Ali Harajli, the employee on whose behalf the luncheon had been rescheduled, sent an email to Ross, asking him to forward an invitation to Staff Bridge unit employees to have bagels and cream cheese “[o]n behalf of our fellow employees who are celebrating the end of the month of fasting (Month of Ramadan) this year.”

Ross refused, and another staffer forwarded the invitation.

Ross then met with Leonard and said rescheduling the employee appreciation luncheon was “seriously inappropriate” and violated the First Amendment by “establishing that Ramadan was the top religion in Staff Bridge,” “this grand holiday that no events could be scheduled during.”

Ross also characterized Harajli’s email invitation as “proselytizing” and “promoting Islam in the workplace.”

Leonard consulted with HR, and emailed Ross saying that it was the employer’s practice to accommodate cultural diversity, and that the bagels and cream cheese affair didn’t violate any company standards.

Uh, oh, more bagels

Fast forward to a year later. Another email invitation went out to
employees indicating that bagels would be available in the cafeteria the following morning to mark the end of Ramadan.

Ross fired off his own email:

I am unable to attend the Religious Cultural Celebration marking the End of Ramadan, because my Faith will not allow it, and I also know of other members of Staff Bridge who will not be attending.

Therefore, in keeping with the universal tradition of sharing food as a sign of friendship, I and others have provided some morning snacks in the Coffee/Break room for everyone to enjoy.

The organizers of the bagel event responded:

[F]eel free not to attend if your faith prohibits you from sharing goodies provided by fellow employees in celebrating their holiday. We do not have any sensitivity regarding participating in occasions celebrated by others.”

When Mr. Harajli sent out another invitation for a bagels and cream cheese celebration, Mr. Ross was outraged. He sent management an email saying:

… [This] appears to be another example of his ongoing promotion of his faith,
during working hours, and utilizing a CDOT conference room … as well as using broadcast emails. …

Why is CDOT allowing these obviously deceptive workplace manipulations, in order to indoctrinate non-Muslims into the religious customs of Islam, during scheduled working hours, and tying up CDOT resources with false pretenses?

Management responded that the bagels get-togethers didn’t constitute an effort to promote religion. Ross was adamant:

[T]his methodology to promote Islam has been common for well over 1000 years, and any organization briefed by Homeland Security is aware of these subtle yet pervasive methods.

Eventually, Ross filed suit, claiming he’d been subjected to a hostile work environment on account of his Muslim coworkers’ “proselytizing.”

But the judge wasn’t buying it.

“Nothing other than [Ross’ dogmatic stance] supports his otherwise unsubstantiated belief that the mere fact of inviting others to share food around the end of Ramadan constitutes an attempt to ‘indoctrinate non-Muslims into the religious customs of Islam,'” the judge wrote.

Additionally, the court said, Ross didn’t “suggest, and there is no evidence,
that anyone at CDOT ever disparaged Christianity generally or him personally because of his religious beliefs … {T]here is no evidence suggesting that plaintiff was subjected to a constant barrage of references to Islam or requests to accommodate Muslim employees’ religious beliefs.”

And the moral of the story …

We’ll give the last word to Eric B. Meyer, writing on theemployerhandbook.com:

Employers should be aware that, while Title VII protects workers from religious discrimination, it does not mandate a completely religiously neutral work environment.

So get in the holiday spirit. Put up the Christmas tree, light the menorah, embrace diversity.

Just don’t jam it down your employee’s throats.

Case cite: Ross v. CDOT.

 

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