Employer's Restrictions of Religious Activity not Discriminatory

May 2, 2006 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court's ruling that a county's Department of Social Services did not violate a worker's rights by its restrictions on prayer meetings and religious symbols in the workplace.

In its opinion, the court said, “Public employers such as the Department face the difficult task of charting a course between infringing on employees’ rights to the free exercise of their religions under the First Amendment and violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by appearing to endorse their employees’ religious expressions.”

Using the Pickering balance test, the court found that the Tehama County Department of Social Services in California successfully balanced its obligation to the employee as well as to its clients.   While the department allowed religious conversation among employees, it forbade employees from discussing religion with clients. Similarly, the department allowed the display of religious items except where the items would be in view of clients.

In addition, according to the opinion, the department allowed employee prayer meetings in the breakroom or outside, but did not allow such meetings in the company’s conference room to avoid treating the conference room as a public forum.

Employee Daniel Berry had sued the department saying it violated his rights under the First Amendment as well as under the Civil Rights Act by prohibiting him from holding religious meetings in a conference room, speaking with clients about religion, or displaying religious items in his cubicle where he sometimes met with clients.

The court noted that the department fairly required that all employees use the conference room for business purposes only, and further said that employee birthday parties and other celebrations did not violate that rule.

The opinion in Berry v. Department of Social Services, Tehama County is  here .