“Religious Freedom” Acts Complicate Employer/Employee Relations

Ciera Ambrose and Owen H. Laird, Esq.

Recently, there has been an uproar surrounding two recent so-called “religious freedom” acts passed in Indiana and Arkansas. These laws, approved by the Republican-dominated legislatures and signed by Republican Governors, allow businesses in those states to refuse service to gay people on the basis of religious beliefs. While it is illegal under federal law to refuse service to someone because of his or her race, there is no similar protection for sexual orientation.  As a result, individual states are able to pass these “religious freedom” laws.

Laws allowing businesses or individuals to refuse service based on religious beliefs raise a number of ramifications concerning employment law, including the potential for conflict, up to and including employment discrimination, based on differing religious beliefs between employers and employees.

For example, Crystal O’Connor, whose family owns Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Indiana, told local TV station WBND that the state’s new religious freedom law protects their right to deny service to gay couples.  O’Connor stated that their Christian beliefs would prevent them from catering a same-sex couple’s wedding: “If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide them pizzas for a wedding, we would have to say no.”

Now imagine that Memories Pizzeria had an employee who did not agree with this practice, and chose to serve gay customers. Would the owners of Memories Pizzeria have the legal right to terminate this employee? Or, conversely, if a business desired to serve gay customers, but an individual employee refused to do so, citing “religious freedom,” would the employer have the right to terminate that employee?

These questions are similar to those raised in 2012, when individual Illinois pharmacists were permitted to refuse to sell the contraceptive, “Plan B,” based on anti-abortion religious grounds. In this matter, an Illinois appeals court ruled that pharmacists may refuse to dispense the “morning after pill,” despite a 2005 executive order that directed all pharmacists to fill prescriptions for the morning after, or “Plan B,” pill. The lawsuit asserted that the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act (the “Act”) should protect individual pharmacists from punishment if they refused to offer a service that is opposed to their religious beliefs. The Act allows pharmacists to refuse to dispense certain items. Although some recognized the order’s intention to “promote timely access to Plan B and other medicine,” they also saw it as an infringement on the “religious freedom of pharmacists who believe that life begins at conception.”

At issue in 2012 was that individuals, contrary to the wishes of the employer, did not want to provide services to customers based on their religious beliefs. Similar disagreements between employer and employee may well arise because of these new “religious freedom” laws. Where employer and employee do not share the same religious beliefs, allowing either employer or employee to act based on those beliefs against the wishes of the other side could easily lead to an employment dispute, and raise implications of religious discrimination.

Key ethical concerns between employers and employees exist as a result of these “religious freedom” acts and employees must remain conscious of the potential negative implications. To remain updated on employment law related news, please visit The Harman Firm, LLP’s Blog.