Around watercoolers and in breakrooms across the country, passionate debate about abortion has exploded because of a recently leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that would overrule Roe v. Wade if decided as written. Federal government workplaces are not immune from the emotional impact of the prospect of states again having the power to regulate abortion – workers may be for or against abortion or somewhere in between.
“Abortion presents a profound moral issue on which Americans hold sharply conflicting views,” opens the first sentence of the draft opinion. Indeed, it is one of the weightiest issues of our times, touching for most deeply held beliefs of religion, morality and ethics.
As one constitutional law professor explains, a wide range of religions and religious organizations hold a variety of positions on the issue – and some are polar opposite. In fact, he cites data that even within some denominations holding strong official positions, the membership and followers may or may not agree, even in large numbers.
Disagreements – including inappropriate comments – in the federal workplace about abortion rights can lead to conflict between employees with differing religious or ethical beliefs. This could spill over into social media or potentially negatively impact the process of gaining security clearances.
Religious discrimination and harassment
In this volatile workplace atmosphere, several scenarios could play out in which federal employees with varying beliefs about abortion could become targets. Specifically, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits religious discrimination and harassment.
Discrimination occurs when a supervisor or manager takes negative employment action against a federal employee for their sincerely held religious belief. Or a federal worker could be subject to harassment for their religious view of abortion. Harassment is a subset of discrimination and could involve slurs, jokes, targeting, threats or similar acts that are so severe or pervasive that they cause a hostile or abusive work environment.
Title VII broadly defines religious belief
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces Title VII for federal (and other kinds of) employees. EEOC regulations interpreting Title VII say that in most situations, it is clear when an employee has a sincerely held religious belief.
However, the definition of religious belief also includes “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional views.” In other words, not only are federal employees protected against religious discrimination when their sincere belief about abortion is religious, but also when that belief is nontraditional, moral or ethical, but as sincerely held as a religious view.
Religious discrimination also includes negative action against an employee for their lack of religious belief, which could also come up in the abortion debate.
We understand that religious disagreement about abortion is now playing out in the open in many federal facilities. If a federal employee is being targeted, harassed or retaliated against for their religious or ethical beliefs on the subject – whatever those opinions may be – they should immediately seek out a law firm that represents federal employees. A lawyer can advise them of their rights and legal remedies that may include filing a claim with the EEOC or a lawsuit. The attorney will guide them through the process to protect their federal careers.