Ruling overplays religious exceptionalism

Jasper Johnson

The U.S. Supreme Court found clothing chain Abercrombie and Fitch to be in the wrong when the company refused to hire a hijab-clad woman for assumptions about a conflict with dress code policies. The store claimed that because it did not know the hijab was necessarily religious, it did not discriminate when it chose not to hire her due to its employee dress code. Many object to the hiring practices and general stances of Abercrombie and Fitch, some of which have previously been ruled illegal. This recent ruling about dress code — handed down June 1 — is relatively trivial, but it brings up an important issue: religion in the workplace.
 
The origin of these issues stems from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects people not only from race or gender-based discrimination but also religious discrimination. This is a dangerous flaw. Employers should not have to bend over backwards to accommodate someone’s opinion — nor should anyone else, for that matter. Religious views are simply ideological views like any other, and they should not be privileged with special treatment. 
 
Frankly, I find it offensive that judgments based on ideology or behavior that affect the workplace are legally comparable to racial or gender discrimination. We choose our beliefs and opinions and willingly let them impact our behaviors in daily life, whereas gender or race are entirely due to circumstance. It is obviously unjust discrimination if a store refuses to hire someone because he or she is African-American, as that has no bearing on workplace performance. But it is essential that employers be able to discriminate based on religious beliefs that can detrimentally impact the workplace. A pharmacy cannot function if a Christian Scientist employee refuses to sell medications. 
 
The implication of religion in the workplace is a local issue as well. Target has struggled to accommodate the handling of pork for Muslim cashiers. It was a logistical challenge, with cashiers having to call in other cashiers to scan items if they spotted pork products, thus making customers wait in line for an unreasonable amount of time. Target ended up shifting employees around or offering gloves to handle pork.
 
I find this to be especially accommodating and considerate of Target, but they need to have the right to fire employees if they refuse to perform particular aspects of their job. Employees cannot claim some divine right to not perform tasks or to be granted exceptions just because their unwillingness is based on religious as opposed to secular ideology. If an equally devoted vegan atheist and Orthodox Jew refused to handle meat at a butcher shop, the religious party is disproportionately respected and given special treatment.
 
Put simply, a person has to be able to do his or her job. If beliefs and behaviors — religious in origin or not — interfere with an employee’s workplace performance, an employer needs to have the right to act accordingly.