Religious Diversity Is Good for Business
On Monday, our nation paused to celebrate the American worker.
Congress made Labor Day a national holiday in 1894, thereby establishing, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, an annual "national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country." Our highly productive workforce generates for the U.S. the world's largest gross domestic product (GDP).
Research and experience tell us that this is due in no small part to the success we have had promoting a strong and religiously diverse workplace, one that includes and protects people of all faiths.
It behooves us to consider how America's protections for religious workers' civil rights and liberties have strengthened our society and economy.
According to Gallup surveys, nearly nine in ten Americans believe in God and 80 percent self-identify with a particular community of faith. For many Americans of all backgrounds, faith shapes and informs everything from whom they marry to what movies they watch and books they read. Their faith helps guide what careers they choose and what jobs they seek and accept. Minimizing the anti-religious barriers Americans face to their careers and employment helps ensure that the most productive match between motivated workers and the best jobs.
This is why on Labor Day Americans should also be celebrating the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act's most important and immediate effect was to help end racial segregation and race-based discrimination.
But the Civil Rights Act also reflected what Americans had learned through ugly episodes of hostility and discrimination against Jews, Catholics, Mormons, and others. Title VII of the Act prohibits religion-based discrimination in the workplace and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees' religious exercise unless doing so would cause "undue hardship."
In a decision this summer involving clothier Abercrombie & Fitch and a young Muslim woman, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed Title VII's strong protections for people of all faiths. The company denied employment to Samantha Elauf, a young Muslim American woman, because her religious headscarf violated the company's "look" policy.
Abercrombie argued that they could refuse to employ Ms. Elauf due to her religious headscarf because she did not say in her job interview that she wanted the company to grant her a religious accommodation. In other words, the company felt entitled to engage in religion-based discrimination because Ms. Elauf did not ask the company not to. This view posed a significant threat to Title VII's protections, but in an 8-1 decision the High Court rejected it.
Title VII says to Americans of all faiths that they need not deny or suppress their religious identity in order to participate on equal terms in the workplace. Equally important are the uncountable private sector businesses that voluntarily choose to allow people of faith to comply with their religion and suffer no adverse effects to their employment.
According to American workers, however, anti-religious discrimination in the workplace is still far too prevalent. In a 2013 Tanenbaum survey conducted by Public Religion Research, 36 percent of workers said that they had witnessed or experienced religious discrimination in employment. Discriminatory actions range from denying employment to candidates because of their religious clothing or identity to refusing to make any accommodation for workers' days of worship.
Social science research demonstrates that protecting the civil rights of religious workers is good for society and good for business. For instance, a study published last year in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion focused on the World Economic Forum's list of indicators of a nation's global competitiveness. Of the 12 leading indicators, 10 have a strong positive correlation with respect for religious civil rights and legal protections against religion-based discrimination. On the flip side, government restrictions on religion damage the economic environment by increasing social hostility, depressing investment, and fomenting uncertainty.
Americans still have a vital vested interest in ensuring that the workplace is not only free from religion-based discrimination, but welcoming of all people regardless of their faith or belief. Respecting and protecting our workforce's religious diversity is at the heart of what made America strong -- and of what will keep it strong in the years, decades, and centuries ahead.