Apr 18, 2008

Consider the Source: Religion in the Workplace

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Remember the Source Family? Wore long robes, lived together in a mansion in Los Feliz, ran a trendy vegetarian restaurant on Sunset, had a psychedelic band called Ya Ho Wa 13, all went by the last name "Aquarian"? If not -- or if so, but you'd like to remember more -- you can find out all about them in the book I'm reading, The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and the Source Family (my version annotated by the inimitable Mrs. Stim). You can also check out National Public Radio's recent series on the group, including an audio slideshow, here.

Being a lawyer, reading this book got me thinking about religion in the workplace -- for my money, one of the most interesting areas of employment law. Consider this: What if someone who wasn't a member of the Source Family wanted to work at their restaurant? An aspiring actor or musician could have done worse in the early '70s; after all, John Lennon, Julie Christie, Warren Beatty, and Paul Mazursky all spent time there. What if an aspiring thespian wanted to rub elbows with celebrities, but didn't want to attend the 4 a.m. meditation or learn the Ten Commandments for the Age of Aquarius?

A California case last year dealt with this issue of the nonbeliever employee. Lynn Noyes, an employee of Kelly Services, claimed that she wasn't promoted because, unlike her manager and more than a third of her coworkers, she was not a member of the Fellowship of Friends, a group founded in 1970. (The Fellowship adheres to "Fourth Way" principles, which it refers to as esoteric Christianity.) After the district court granted summary judgment against Noyes, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that she could take her case to trial. In doing so, the Court affirmed that reverse religious discrimination cases -- where the employee claims discrimination for not sharing a decisionmaker's beliefs -- are viable.

But what about the opposite situation -- what if a Source Family member wanted to get out of the restaurant business and take a job elsewhere? The employer would have to accomodate, among other things, the employee's wearing of robes, refusal to get a haircut or shave, and daily morning bong hit (to last exactly six seconds). (Family members also "didn't need" deodorant due to their healthful diets, but I don't think that was a requirement; also, it was the '70s). As for the robes and hair, altering company dress codes is often seen as a reasonable accommodation to an employee's religious practices (although the employee might have to make some alterations for safety reasons). The pot smoking is a different story, of course.

If, like me, you've worked in a few alternative environments, you have probably come across a different type of religion in the workplace: the vaguely spiritual or New Age ritual, often as a means of team building. If you've had to chant, meditate, close your eyes and picture something, or take your turn with the talking stick while on the clock, you know what I mean. Or, perhaps you've participated in a workplace training program intended to help you "self-actualize" or reach your "human potential". The EEOC says that making New Age and similar trainings mandatory could lead to a religious discrimination claim. In fact, that's just what happened to the DeKalb Farmers' Market, which allegedly fired or forced out employees who refused to attend training sessions run by The Forum, a later incarnation of est (erhard seminars training). The employees claimed that the program's emphasis on human potential violated their belief in the supremacy of God. (The case settled.)

Lisa Guerin