Have you recently received an email from a colleague that contains a quotation in his email signature block that is either religious or inspirational?  Here are just a few quotes that I have seen in the past few weeks:

  • “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • “Your talent is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.”  Leo Buscaglia
  • “With God, all things are POSSIBLE.”  Mark 10:27

Why do some people include these quotations in their email signature blocks?  Surely the sender realizes that such quotes could be read by people that do not share his views or beliefs.  The quotes could even be considered offensive or alienating.  But the question I am trying to tackle is this: do religious quotes in email signature blocks violate Title VII?  Or are such quotes actually protected religious activity? 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 created protections for civil rights across a wide spectrum, including religion.  Section 701 of Title VII defines religion to include:

All aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.  42 U.S. C. § 2000e(j).

Is a quote in an email considered the observance of a religious practice or belief? Sometimes whether a particular observance or practice is religious is disputed.  The Supreme Court of the United States has stated that religious practices and observances are generally considered to include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.  United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965); Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333 (1970).  A belief does not need to be accepted by any religious group or even the religious group to which the individual belongs in order to qualify as “religious” under Title VII.  The belief must simply be sincerely held by the individual regardless of its broader acceptance. 

Although the law is still developing in this area, religious quotes in emails could be considered proselytizing.  Therefore, we return to the original question:  if an employee wants to include religious quotes in the signature block of the email, is this protected activity under Title VII?  An employee has a right to engage in religious conduct to the extent that it is not an undue hardship on the employer.  Creating a religiously hostile work environment by such proselytizing would likely be an undue hardship on the employer. Harassment is a fairly high—but not impossible—standard.  So, in determining whether or not proselytizing constitutes workplace harassment, important factors that bear on the analysis include:

  • the pervasiveness of the proselytizing; and
  • its impact on coworkers (e.g., complaints of harassment) and work performance (including profitability or business lost from offensive emails).

The law is well established that an employee cannot be required to participate in any religious activity as part of his or her employment.  For example, workplace prayer groups:  so long as participation in a prayer group at work is voluntary and there are no employment-related consequences tied to participating or not participating, such religious observances are allowed. However, if access to a supervisor who is involved in a prayer group leads to preferred assignments for certain participating employees, other employees may have a claim for religious discrimination; or if pressure to attend is applied by supervisors or co-workers, an employer may face liability for a hostile work environment.

However, email quotes are different.  Unlike participating in a weekly prayer luncheon in the employee break room, reading work or business emails is not a “voluntary” activity.  Such emails must be read.  And when a religious quote appears at the bottom of every email from this person, is the employee enduring religious harassment?  Employees do have certain rights to express their religious views in the workplace.  For example, it is not an undue hardship for employers to accommodate an employee’s request to wear a yarmulke at work or to display a cross in a private office or workspace.  However, Title VII does not compel employers to accommodate employees’ religious expression that could reasonably be perceived by patrons as an expression of the employer’s views or if the religious expression disrupts operations or could create a hostile or demeaning environment for customers or colleagues. 

Therefore, if an employer does not want customers to perceive that an employee’s religious beliefs are affiliated with the company, the employer can prohibit employees from including religious quotes in the signature block of emails.  The same conclusion can be also reached if co-workers complain about religious quotes in emails internally.  Sample policy language:

Email users will not add slogans, quotes, special backgrounds, special stationeries, digital images, unusual fonts, etc., to the body of their electronic messages.

As with any policy, please make sure it is enforced consistently and uniformly.  If hourly employees cannot include religious quotes in their emails, then neither can the CEO.  Peace be with you.