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Religious Discrimination and Reprisal

In Walker v. EPA, No. 0120112853 (October 6, 2011), the EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations affirmed the decision of the Environmental Protection Agency to dismiss an EPA scientist’s claims of religious discrimination and reprisal for failure to state a claim. On December 1, 2010, complainant Walker filed an EEO complaint, claiming that he was subject to harassment and reprisal on the basis of his religious beliefs (Pentecostal). The complainant was among the recipients of an email in a global email sent from the acting director to all employees in the National Center for Environmental Assessment (NCEA). The email apprised employees of a voluntary, informal gathering on-site to celebrate the same-sex marriage of a fellow employee, reading as follows:

[Employee A] and his partner [named] are getting married this Sunday. The IO is sponsoring an informal celebration to congratulate [Employee A] on this happy event. Please feel free to drop by the IO conference room on Thursday, October 7, at 4:30 pm to wish them well.

Walker responded globally to the email: I feel your message announcing the celebration of “union” of [Employee A] and his “Partner” was offensive and insensitive to my religious faith as a Christian. I think it is general knowledge that the Christian faith only condones “marriages” between men and women, not men and other men. As acting Office Director, I feel you could have been more “sensitive” and “neutral” with regards to this issue.

The day after Mr. Walker’s response, NCEA employees sent approximately 15-20 emails to the global list-serve, congratulating Employee A on his marriage. Although none of the emails mentioned Walker by name, two emails indicated to Walker that his October 18, 2010 email was insensitive as it had been sent to the entire list-serve and not just the acting director. Walker claimed that the 15-20 emails were retaliatory.

In upholding the dismissal, the EEOC first reiterated that a complaint of harassment survives when it is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the complainant’s employment. With respect to Walker’s case, it found that the conditions were not sufficiently severe or pervasive. First, it pointed out that the acting director sent the email to all NCEA employees, not just Walker, and had indicated that the gathering was voluntary. Moreover, the acting director’s email was in keeping with the agency’s policy of celebrating important events in the lives of its employees.

Lastly, the EEOC found that the 15-20 emails sent in response to Walker’s response email, although likely prompted by Walker’s response, did not specifically mention Walker or (save for one e-mail) challenge or question his religious beliefs. The EEOC found that this lone email from a co-worker, expressing the belief of the sender about Walker’s religious beliefs was not sufficiently severe to support a hostile work environment claim.