Conscientious Objection in the Workplace

Conscientious ObjectorOver the last few years, there have been news stories about employees who have refused to perform aspects of their jobs that they felt conflicted with their moral beliefs.

  • In New York, town clerks refused to sign marriage licenses for gay couples, believing that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.
  • Pharmacists in Illinois sued then Gov. Rod Blagojevic, claiming that he violated their right to religious freedom by requiring them to fill prescriptions for contraceptives.
  • In Wisconsin, the state has had a long standing argument over whether health care workers could legally ignore a patient’s do-not-resuscitate order.  The governor has twice vetoed this legislation.
  • In San Diego, physicians refused to provide a single lesbian woman with fertility treatments.

These are just a handful of the examples of the collision between employees’ moral, religious and ethical beliefs, and the obligation of companies to provide goods and services equally to all consumers.

Always create detailed written job descriptions for the positions within your company.

Before discussing conscientious objection in the workplace, I must first emphasize the critical importance of having detailed written job descriptions on file, spelling out every duty and requirement, for all of the positions within your company.

By providing job applicants and employees with a thorough description of their duties and your expectations, you are creating a layer of protection for yourself when thorny employment issues like conscientious objection crop up.

Can someone always refuse to do their job duties when they conflict with their religious beliefs?

Under Title VII, current and prospective employees have the right to be reasonably accommodated for their religious beliefs.  But this does not necessarily mean that someone can always refuse to do their job duties when they conflict with their religious beliefs, or that a company must always provide accommodations for a conscientious objector.

Here’s a hypothetical example:

A small hotel has an opening for a night desk clerk, and the company’s written job description for the position states that the night desk clerk works alone on the graveyard shift and is responsible for booking and checking in guests.  A job applicant for the position informs the hotel that, for religious regions, they cannot book hotel rooms for any unmarried couples.

In this instance, the company is within its rights to not hire this person, on the grounds that the applicant’s conscientious objection drastically limits their ability to perform the stated responsibilities of the job and is too difficult to accommodate.  Similarly, the company would be within its rights to terminate a current night desk clerk who suddenly refuses to check in unmarried guests.

What happens if circumstances change, creating a conflict for an employee?

This is what has happened in New York with a change in law that now allows gay couples to marry.  Some clerks, on religious grounds, are not comfortable with performing this new task.

Hopefully, in this case, accommodations can be made for other employees to process these applications for them, preserving the rights of the conscientious objectors to their beliefs, and the rights of the citizens under the law.  If not, the conscientious objectors may feel they have to resign in order to not violate their beliefs.

Conscientious objection in Washington State:

Under Washington’s laws, there are several “good cause” reasons an employee can quit their job and still receive their unemployment.  One of them is a “change in the claimant’s usual work which violated their religious convictions or sincere moral beliefs.”

If the issues with the town clerks objecting to gay marriage had occurred in Washington State, and they couldn’t be accommodated on the job, they would be able to resign and collect unemployment while they sought new positions.

The wrap-up:

The workplace is a place of diversity, combining people with a wide variety of backgrounds, religions, beliefs and moral structures.  We may ask our employees to leave divisive opinions at the door, but we cannot ask them to violate their core belief systems.  Oftentimes legislation guides us on this path, but hopefully more often than not it is our understanding that “diversity is the one true thing that we all have in common.”

Leave a Reply