Religious Symbols At Work: What Are The Limits?

Aug 27, 2011 Comments Off by

Some of the most controversial cases to have come about in recent years on the subject of religion are those involving people who were banned from wearing certain items of religious symbolism at work. But in each case, nobody knows what the result will be, because nobody is sure how to resolve such cases.

Initially judges and barristers will turn to human rights laws. One of the most protected human rights laws in all of the modern world is freedom of expression, regardless of what that expression is. This would seem to resolve the problem in one swift move. In most cases it would, but consider the effect that freedom of expression would have if someone wasn’t representing themselves, but were representing their country.

Ambassadors are meant to represent everyone’s views in an unbiased manner, as well as possibly an objective proposed by their government. There are obviously contradicting opinions among a nation of people, so ambassadors are not expected to believe those views themselves. So an ambassador could not demonstrate their own standpoint above the standpoints of others, else they’re a bad ambassador. Hence national ambassadors could not wear religious symbols, or indeed anything which makes them visually biased.

However, the legal cases mentioned above rarely involve representatives of countries. Let’s consider the case that an employee of a large, multinational company decides to represent their religious belief visually. While working the employee is effectively representing the company to a customer. But do companies receive the same rights to neutralise their representatives’ views in the way that a nation could? No. Because a company does not have to be impartial, as they are not democratic.

But then, think about a similar case where an employee refuses service to a customer on religious grounds. Does the company then have a right to fire that employee? Yes. Because when the employee was hired, part of the contract was presumably that they don’t get to choose who they serve. Therefore the employee is breaking their contract.

Now though, we come to the most difficult case to analyse. If an employee is wearing religious symbols, a customer might think that, because the employee is representing the company, that the entire company shares the views of the one employee. This often isn’t a problem with mild religious beliefs. However imagine if the symbol were one of extremism. The company could potentially face rejection from a large proportion of its client base.

Clearly the problem is with the customer who took offence. There was no reason to take offence from mere expression. However the impact is greater than the one customer. Human rights law means that the employee cannot be fired. But the remainder of the company is also allowed freedom of expression, and must be quick to redirect the customer’s offence towards the employee, as the offence taken is personal. As much as this may seem like an aggressive tactic, the customer has taken offence to someone who is representing themselves through freedom of expression, and the issue is nothing to do with the company.

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I am the founder of Atheism Network.
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