Light Bulb Moment: Religious Discrimination Is Illegal

A question for job applicants: Would you mind coming into work early to attend a Bible study?

Let’s say you went down to the local widget factory and applied for a supervisor’s job. You’re experienced and have in fact supervised widget factories in the past. But during the interview, you’re quizzed about your religious beliefs and fail to get the job because you don’t go to church.

You would be pretty mad, right? You’d also have a federal case because religious discrimination in hiring is illegal.

The above scenario is not fictitious. (Well, the widget part is.) It actually happened to Edward Wolfe, an Oklahoma man who applied for a supervisory position at Voss Lighting in Tulsa. The job was advertised on the website of a Baptist church. Wolfe didn’t attend that church but found out about the opening anyway. He knew he had the qualifications, so he applied.

Wolfe was brought in for an interview. The experience was a little strange. Voss, as its name indicates, makes specialized light bulbs, primarily for industrial uses. Yet during the interview, Voss officials seemed more interested in learning about Wolfe’s religious views than his work experience.

Voss officials quizzed Wolfe on where he went to the church, how often he attended services and whether he had been “saved.” They even demanded that he provide a list of all of the churches he had ever attended. They also wanted to know if he would mind coming to work early to attend a Bible study.

Wolfe was the only candidate being interviewed at the time. He got a second interview, during which he had to endure another grilling about his religious views. In the end, he didn’t get the job.

That’s when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stepped in. The Commission sued Voss. A settlement was recently reached. Under its terms, Voss will pay Wolfe $82,500 and implement a series of company-wide actions at its facilities around the country.

According to an EEOC press release, these include “actions designed to prevent future religious discrimination, including the posting of an EEOC notice specifically prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of religion at all its 21 locations spanning 12 states, re-dissemination of anti-discrimination policies; periodic reporting to the EEOC of specified hiring information; religion-neutral job advertising; and the training of management on religious discrimination.”

A house of worship, of course, has every right to subject potential employees to questions about their religious views. Purely religious entities are exempt from the portions of the 1964 Civil Right Act that ban employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. But a company that engages in wholly secular activities, such as manufacturing light bulbs, does not.

At least for now. Recently, a number of privately owned secular businesses have taken to arguing in court that their owners have a religious freedom right to deny employees access to certain medications, such as birth control, that the owners consider sinful.

The argument being made is that a secular, for-profit business can have a religious identity. If that’s the case, the next logical step is an assertion that companies have the right to control their employees in other ways to protect the boss’ religious sensibilities. Better yet, why not just let these firms hire only the “right” kind of believers to begin with? (What if an employee converts to a different faith or joins the “wrong” church? No problem! That person can be fired.)

Americans United has filed legal briefs opposing the idea of business owners being permitted to run their for-profit firms along sectarian lines in ways that violate the rights of others. Our attorneys have argued that a company’s owner simply doesn’t have the right to impose his or her religion onto employees and certainly has no right to meddle in their private medical affairs.

If the Catholic hierarchy and their allies in the Religious Right have their way, bosses will win the right to twist health-insurance plans to meet religious dogma. What will they demand next? Will they insist that they have a “conscience” right to hire a workforce that consists entirely of certain types of Christians? Will they insist on an exemption from civil rights laws?

If we don’t take a stand, more and more Americans may find themselves subjected to a religious inquisition when all they’re trying to do is get a job.