Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Mathew B. Tully of Tully Rinckey PLLC, an Arlington firm that specializes in federal employment and labor law, security clearance proceedings, and military law.
Q. With everything happening in Iraq and Syria, people in my office have been expressing their disapproval of my Islamic beliefs. At what point does this become discrimination?
A. Several years after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in EEOC v. Sunbelt Rentals, Inc. (2008) pointed out that Muslims had become “targets of gross misapprehensions and overbroad assumptions about their religious beliefs.” But while the events of 9/11 “shook the foundations of our buildings, [they] did not shake the premise of our founding — that here, in America, there is no heretical faith.”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects employees from religious-based harassment that creates a hostile or abusive work environment. As abhorrent as anti-Islamic or anti-Semitic statements are, not all of them will violate Title VII. For a co-worker’s or supervisor’s anti-Islamic comments to create a hostile work environment, they must be unwelcome and “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive atmosphere.” Further, it must be shown that the employer engaged in, or did not take adequate steps to stop, the harassment, according to the 4th Circuit.
Harassment can be religious-based when co-workers or supervisors use religious epithets or other offensive religious terms, such as “Taliban” or “towel head,” or when they tease a Muslim employee about his kufi (traditional headgear) or beard, the court noted in Sunbelt Rentals. It is important for the employee to file an internal complaint in accordance with the employer’s anti-discrimination policy. This action would clearly establish that such discriminatory comments are unwelcome and place on employers the responsibility of countering such misconduct.
Initially, a district court dismissed the religious discrimination claim raised by the Muslim employee in Sunbelt, saying the co-workers’ comments were merely part of the “coarse behavior that goes on in the workplace.” The court also said some things the employee complained about, such as the hiding of his time card, had no connection to his religion. It also did not believe the co-workers’ comments were sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment because the employee did not mention the “explicitly religious incidents” in his written complaint to human resources.
On appeal, however, the 4th Circuit disagreed with the lower court’s decision, saying the employee persistently suffered from religious harassment of “the most demeaning, degrading, and damaging sort.” Key to this finding was the fact that the discriminatory conduct was “persistent, demeaning, unrelenting, and widespread.” The court stressed, “[W]e cannot regard as ‘merely offensive,’ and thus ‘beyond Title VII’s purview’ … constant and repetitive abuse founded upon misperceptions that all Muslims possess hostile designs against the United States.”
Employees who believe they are being harassed because of their religion and are working in a hostile work environment “must clear a high bar in order to satisfy the severe or pervasive test,” the appellate court said. That is why it is crucial for employees to consult with an experienced employment law attorney who can gather the testimony and other evidence necessary to pass that test.
Mathew B. Tully is the founding partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC. Located in Arlington, Va. and Washington, D.C., Tully Rinckey PLLC’s attorneys practice federal employment law, military law, and security clearance representation. To speak with an attorney, call 703-525-4700 or to learn more visit fedattorney.com.
The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
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The Arlington-Aachen High School exchange is returning this summer and currently accepting applicants.
The sister-city partnership started in 1993 by the Arlington Sister Cities Association, which seeks to promote Arlington’s international profile through a variety of exchanges in education, commerce, culture and the arts. The exchange, scheduled June 17th to July 4th, includes a two-week homestay in Aachen plus three days in Berlin. Knowledge of the German language is not required for the trip.
Former participants have this to say:
_”The Aachen exchange was an eye-opening experience where I was fully immersed in the life of a German student. I loved biking through the countryside to Belgium, having gelato and picnics in the town square, and hanging out with my German host student’s friends. My first time out of the country, the Aachen exchange taught me to keep an open mind, because you never know what could be a life changing experience.” – Kelly M._
Learn about the new assessment of Arlington’s urban tree canopy and the many ecological and social benefits trees provide. Staff from the Green Infrastructure Center (GIC) will share study results and compare canopy cover for different areas of Arlington.The webinar will include assessments of ecosystem services such as stormwater mitigation, air quality, carbon uptake, and urban heat islands. For background on Arlington trees see the “Tree Benefits: Growing Arlington’s Urban Forest” presentation at http://www.gicinc.org/PDFs/Presentation_TreeBenefits_Arlington.pdf.
Please register in advance to assure your place at the webinar, https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/29543206508863839.
About the Arlington County Civic Federation: The Arlington County Civic Federation (“ACCF”) is a not-for-profit corporation which provides a forum for civic groups to discuss, debate, inform, advocate and provide oversight on important community issues, on a non-partisan basis. Its members include over ninety civic groups representing a broad cross-section of the community. Communications, resolutions and feedback are regularly provided to the Arlington County Government.
The next meeting is on Tuesday, February 21,2023 at 7 pm. This meeting is open to the public and will be hybrid, in-person and virtually through Zoom. Part of the agenda will be a discussion and vote on a resolution “To Restore Public Confidence in Arlington County’s Governance”. For more information on ACCF and this meeting, go to https://www.civfed.org/.
Valentine gifts for someone special or for yourself are here at George Mason University from noon -4pm on February 14, 2023. Satisfy your sweet tooth with Kingsbury Chocolates, find a handmade bag from Karina Gaull, pick up treats from Village