Picture this: You make arrangements for new employee training that aligns with your company’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. But one employee objects to the “woke” training and asks for an exemption on religious grounds.
How do you properly balance the company’s DEI goals with an employee’s request for religious accommodation? That was one company’s dilemma.
Conservative employee opposes ‘woke’ training: 2 reasons
Meet Joseph Norgren. He’s a Christian who, as of 2020, worked for his employer for 27 years. That year, he was preparing for retirement.
In August 2020, Norgren and all of his colleagues were notified that they would have to complete computer-based training on anti-racism and gender identity. Specifically, the sessions were titled “How to be Anti-Racist” and “Understanding Gender Identity and Expression: Moving Beyond the Binary.”
Norgren opposed the training sessions. First, he compared the anti-racism session to the “woke” Critical Race Theory, which he claimed violated “the traditional view of equality under Title VII.”
Second, he said he also opposed gender identity session because the concept of nonbinary gender is “contrary to his sincerely held religious belief.”
Meanwhile, Norgren continued his plans for his then-upcoming retirement. On Oct. 6, 2020, he sent an email to HR confirming his retirement date, which was Jan. 6, 2021.
Nearly three weeks later, Norgren sought a religious exemption to be excused from the gender identity training. As an FYI, he did not specifically ask for a separate exemption that would also excuse him from the anti-racist training.
The company denied his request for the religious exemption. As a result, Norgren then emailed his resignation, saying he felt “forced to prematurely separate” from his job.
He also filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging discrimination, retaliation and constructive discharge.
The EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter, and Norgren filed a lawsuit alleging he was constructively discharged. The suit also included claims of race and religious discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII.
To state valid race and religious discrimination claims, Norgren had to show, among other things, that he suffered an adverse employment action. He did not do so, the court said.
Was it race discrimination?
To support his race discrimination claim, Norgren said he suffered an adverse employment action by being constructively discharged due to the hostile environment caused by his opposition to the anti-racism training.
But the court was not swayed.
In the court’s view, requiring “all employees to undergo diversity training does not amount to abusive working conditions, and does not plausibly show that [the employer] imposed across-the-board training with the intention of forcing Norgren to quit.”
Religious discrimination claim fails for the same reason
To support his religious discrimination claim, Norgren alleged he was constructively discharged due to a hostile work environment resulting from the company’s “mandated training and refusal for exemption.”
As to the mandated training, the court reiterated its view that mandating diversity training did not plausibly show the company tried to force Norgren to quit.
And the refusal for the exemption could not support the constructive discharge claim because Norgren had already submitted his notice of retirement three weeks prior to the exemption denial, the court pointed out.
Court: Worker did not engage in protected activity
Turning to the retaliation claim, the court said it failed from the get-go because Norgren did not engage in a protected activity.
A protected activity means complaining about illegal workplace behavior.
Here, Norgren complained about mandated training, but “being required to attend across-the-board diversity training is not a discriminatory practice under Title VII,” the court explained. Case dismissed.
Norgren v. Minnesota Department of Human Services, No. 22-489 ADM/TNL, 2023 WL 35903 (D. Minn. 1/4/23).