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Austin Cline

Accommodation on Whose Terms? Religious Accommodation vs. Religious Privilege

By April 25, 2007

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Religious believers may request some sort of accommodation for their beliefs from their employers for a variety of reasons, but one important question is on whose terms the accommodation should occur. Is it incumbent upon the employer, for example, to provide the employee with whatever they consider most convenient or whatever they consider the optimal situation to be? Or can employers instead come to an accommodation which fits the employee's religious needs, but isn't necessarily what they want in all other respects?

In Sandusky, Ohio, a school nurse has filed a lawsuit against the Erie County General Health District claiming that they "retaliated" against her because of a request for religious accommodation. She declined to do a presentation on sex education for 5th and 6th grade students because her Catholic beliefs forbid birth control. Someone else did it and the health department decided to give her a different schedule which would ensure that she wouldn't be in this position again — but she doesn’t like the new schedule.

''It deals with growing up, puberty and those types of issues,'' Sulewski said. ''It also deals with sex, pregnancy and those types of things,'' she said, citing the instructional materials and conversations with other nurses. Discussing ''safe sex'' with birth control methods, or abortion, inherently deals with sex outside of marriage and practices that conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church, Sulewski said.

The nurse instructors also are allowed to discuss abstinence as one method of ''safe sex,'' Sulewski said. However, she said she would be forbidden to discuss her own moral beliefs and church law in the lessons. ''As a government employee, I cannot tell them that what the government says is OK by law is wrong morally,'' Sulewski said. ''Any kind of sexual relationship outside of marriage, I would object to,'' she said.

Source: The Morning Journal

Apparently it isn't a part of the written job description of school nurses to deal with sex education. At the same time, though, it is a part of the written job description to "promote public health," including "diagnosis, counseling, and education." That covers a lot of potential ground, and if the local government decides that it's necessary for public health that young people become better educated about sexuality, pregnancy, and related matters, then school nurses will have to deal with these topics.

I have trouble believing that it never occurred to Sulewski that sexuality and sexual behavior would eventually come to be included as part of her job duties. I can imagine that the subject may not have come up whenever she was first interviewed (which, for all I know, could have been a decade or more ago), but surely she's had cause to consider the possibility in the meantime.

Of course she can't discuss her church's teachings with students — as a state employee, she has an obligation to discuss what the state and public health officials believe students should learn. We can't have school nurses attacking the very concept of immunization if their religion forbids it, can we? If her church's teachings conflict with her duties as a public official, then she'll have to choose which is most important to her. She has an obligation to the atheist, Buddhist, Baptist, and other non-Catholic students in her care to not treat them as if they were part of her church.

Sulewski continues to work for the department but said her position there has become awkward. She said she ''definitely'' stands by her decision. ''It's not something I even think much about,'' Sulewski said. ''I never compromise my religious beliefs to keep a job, ever.''

Erie County Health Commissioner Peter Schade said Sulewski's job duties were changed so she would not have to deal with topics that conflict with her religious beliefs. ''Her reassignment really had nothing to do with discrimination on our part,'' Schade said. ''We reassigned her to an area where she wouldn't have that responsibility. ...The next day ...she learned of the transfer from working 27 hours at two schools, four days a week, to a new schedule working 25.5 hours at three schools, five days a week.

So her new schedule means slightly fewer hours and, I assume, a less convenient set of days. If she were given this merely because she asked for accommodation, that would be retaliation and wrong. If she is being stuck with a schedule that no one else has to work, or one that is normally only given to new people, then there is a case for the idea that she is being discriminated against because of her religious beliefs.

If, however, this sort of schedule is one of the standard schedules that people in her position have to work but it simply not an ideal one from her perspective, then I think it will be harder for her to make a case for her claims. I can certainly sympathize with not liking these changes, but accommodation doesn't mean that when religious beliefs are accommodated, nothing else has to change and/or that any changes can't be inconvenient for the person who is being accommodated.

If, for example, a person's need to not work on Sundays has to be accommodated, this may lead to inconveniences like having to work a closing shift more often, or having to work more variable shifts than other employees. In many employment situations, when you are excused from doing something that others have to do, you may end up having to make up for the changes in their conditions or schedules.

The fact of the matter is, almost any accommodation for one person's religious needs can create at least some burdens or inconvenience for others — all the atheist, Buddhist, Baptist, and other non-Catholic employees who don't have religious objections to discussing matters like birth control. So, what justification is there for the person being accommodated to not deal with some burden or inconvenience as well? If they don't — if they are accommodated but also the only one who doesn't have to make any adjustments — then in reality they are being privileged rather than merely accommodated. If you are going to ask your employer and colleagues to make compromises for the sake of your religious beliefs, you're going to have to be ready to make some compromises yourself as well.

While people have a right to some measure of accommodation for their religious beliefs, they don't have a right to accommodation that is entirely consequence-free. They shouldn't be retaliated against or discriminated against for requesting some accommodation, but at the same time they cannot demand that absolutely nothing inconvenient occur to them as a consequence of their employer making the accommodations. If no one has to be inconvenienced, that's great because everyone wins — but it's unreasonable to think that every case will turn out so well.

April 25, 2007 at 7:26 pm
(1) Patrick Quigley says:

I wonder what Catholics and other mainstream Christians would say if a school nurse converted to Christian Science and refused to treat their children or educate them on basic disease prevention. I suspect that they would have little sympathy for someone who refused to serve their needs on religious grounds.

April 26, 2007 at 8:45 am
(2) elaygee says:

She has no right to work at the public expense to a set of principles she makes up on her own. Let her open a Christian nursing service and pay for it herself.

May 1, 2007 at 2:26 pm
(3) John Hanks says:

Bogus organized religions should be taxed like any other business enterprise. Real religions have no money to be taxed.

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