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Rafael Segura is a Messianic Jew, which means he believes in Jesus and wears a beard, a requirement of his faith. But for Pilot Travel Centers LLC that wasn’t a compelling enough reason to allow the maintenance worker to defy its policy banning facial hair. Pilot General Counsel Timothy Berry said the policy is enforced at the 265 highway service centers that the company operates in 38 states. So Pilot fired Segura, and in 2003 he sued the Knoxville, Tenn.-based company. Segura went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where he became part of a growing number of workers who are complaining about religious discrimination on the job. The EEOC sued Pilot in federal court in Tennessee when the company refused its demand for $250,000 in damages for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Pilot eventually agreed to a $62,000 settlement before the October 2004 trial began. As part of the agreement, Berry said Pilot will provide managers with training on religious discrimination. But the company didn’t have to hire Segura back, and was allowed to keep its ban on facial hair. Still, Berry said Pilot should have done things differently. “The case boiled down to poor communication between the manager and employee, and between the manager and his boss. Had it been handled properly, we probably would’ve made a [religious] exception” for the beard, Berry said. Contrast Pilot’s experience with what happened at North Coast Women’s Care Medical Group, a clinic in Encinitas, Calif. The clinic tried to accommodate the wishes of a doctor who said she wouldn’t artificially inseminate a lesbian patient because it violated her religious beliefs, and the patient sued. A legal maelstrom Cases like Segura’s and North Coast’s are putting in-house lawyers at the center of a legal maelstrom. Employees in the past few years have been more willing to complain about-and sue over-religious bias, experts say. Ronald Peppe II, vice president for law and communications of the Association of Corporate Counsel in Washington, said complaints like Segura’s were extremely rare only a few years ago. But, he said, the patriotic (and often anti-Muslim) fervor after the 9/11 terrorist attacks heightened awareness of religious differences. In fact, EEOC figures show that religious complaints spiked in 2002, and have nearly doubled since 10 years ago. This increase comes at a time when other complaints, such as race, sex and age bias, are leveling off or declining. Peppe, the former general counsel of Canam Steel Corp. in Point of Rocks, Md., said initially many companies were blindsided by the complaints. “Typically, religion is not a part of training and compliance programs,” he said. In fact, what makes this religious fervor particularly difficult for in-house counsel is that it comes at the same time they’re honing diversity policies that encourage acceptance of differences in gender, race, age, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Disagreeing with the melting-pot “live-and-let-live” attitude fostered by these diversity policies, those with religious complaints often insist on their right to stand apart from their colleagues, by proselytizing on the job, seeking exemptions from duties they object to on religious grounds, or simply insisting on variances from dress codes. Moreover, under Title VII, businesses are required to “accommodate” religious beliefs unless doing so would cause an “undue hardship.” Companies that have made efforts to focus on the similarities of their workers-to be colorblind and gender-neutral in their hiring, promotion and assignment of duties-must accommodate the sometimes polarizing requests of a single worker. Employment attorney Jennifer Walt, a partner at Littler Mendelson in San Francisco, said, “Employers are struggling with how to [accommodate religious beliefs] and still comply with state and federal discrimination laws.” While religious discrimination still accounts for only about 3% of all EEOC complaints, its steady growth has corporate counsel, especially those in the service industries and health care fields, doing some real soul-searching. Threatening to make the issue even more sensitive for some in-house counsel is an obscure provision of an appropriations bill signed into law by President George W. Bush in December. The provision supports hospitals, health care workers and insurance companies that elect not to perform abortion-related activities. Any entity, including a state, that tries to require employees to perform abortions or other related activities, such as pretermination counseling, can lose federal funding. The cost factor Religious bias suits can be costly, taking a toll not only on a company’s bottom line, but also on “soft” costs. EEOC spokesman David Grinberg said that in 2004 the agency received 2,466 new religious discrimination filings. In 2003, the last year for which full settlement figures are available, Grinberg said the agency resolved 2,690 religious discrimination charges and recovered $6.6 million from employers. It filed lawsuits against companies that garnered an additional $2.8 million that year. But that’s only a tiny part of the financial picture. Some charges are settled in-house, with the employee going first to company managers. That route can consume hours of meetings and outside counsel time. Plus, these cases often lead to lost productivity, low morale, absenteeism and health issues related to discrimination at work, and “it’s difficult to put a price value on that,” Grinberg said. Law groups fuel debate Fueling this debate are conservative public interest law groups eager to do battle on behalf of aggrieved employees. More than a dozen of these well-funded organizations have been filing suits and amicus briefs on conservative causes-and suing employers over perceived religious bias. For example, the libertarian, nonprofit Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Va., challenges laws or actions that interfere with a person’s religious beliefs, especially in the workplace. It has an online form on its Web site for anyone seeking help. Attorney John Whitehead, president of the institute, said complaints about religious discrimination in the workplace have been increasing, especially over the past three years. “[The spike in complaints] is part of what’s happening out there. You are going to see more of it. It is a big, big issue,” he said. Whitehead’s institute has thrown its support behind a bill, the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which would require employers to accommodate religious beliefs unless doing so causes a severe hardship, as opposed to the lesser “undue hardship” now in place under Title VII. The proposed act-generally opposed by business-has been kicking around Congress for more than five years, but Whitehead thinks 2005 might be the right time to win the votes to make it law. The bill’s key sponsor, Senator Rick Santorum, R-Pa., is lining up support and plans to reintroduce the measure later this year, according to Santorum’s press office.

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