Faith firestorm at work: Alpharetta exec among those coping

Matters of faith are up for debate again in the American workplace. The Christian county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses and the Muslim flight attendant who refused to serve alcohol are just the latest players in the saga.

Politicians, of course, are busily grandstanding on the issue. But while they make noise, I see employers who nervously navigate the everyday nuances of anti-discrimination laws.

I feel for them. The law leaves lots of room for interpretation about how much they need to accommodate religious beliefs on the job.

JoAn Hobbs saw the company she works for in Alpharetta get tangled up in the issue.

She’s now executive director at Ivy Hall Assisted Living, with its three floors of elderly residents and staff of 50 people, many of whom she says are deeply spiritual.

Five years ago, the company paid $43,000 to settle a religious discrimination suit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That was after one of Hobbs’ predecessors fired a housekeeper who refused to remove a hijab, a Muslim head scarf, which violated the center’s dress code.

Hobbs didn’t try to defend the past executive’s actions to me. The company, she said, has since changed its policy to allow wearing clothes tied to religious beliefs.

But she told me she struggles to make the right call in other matters involving religion in the workplace.

“It gets very difficult as an employer to determine what is reasonable, what is appropriate and where we draw the line,” she said.

Faith tends to be no small matter in places like Ivy Hall. Some of its residents don’t have long to live. I guess they don’t want to leave without at least trying to see the big picture.

Hobbs suspects her employees join in prayer to comfort patients who share their faith. She’s OK with that.

But she worries that discussions will evolve into proselytizing to residents or colleagues, who might have different beliefs.

“We have to walk a fine line,” she told me. So she enforces a ban on solicitations at work.

“Once every couple months I’ll hear somebody say somebody ‘was trying to get me to read the bible.’ We have to counsel that is not appropriate in the workplace.”

I’m intrigued by this because Hobbs tells me she attends church regularly, prays every day and considers her faith the foundation for a career built on compassion for others.

But she seems to carefully regulate her own faith at work. She doesn’t, for example, keep a bible in her office. She seems a little surprised even by my question about it.

Some people, I think, see a very clear barrier between work and displays of faith. Some don’t. It’s tricky for bosses.

“Sometimes,” she said, “people are looking for things to get employers on, so you have to be real careful.”

She said she accommodates people who ask to take religious holidays and works schedules so that a housekeeper can be off every Sunday as part of her religious beliefs.

“You have an obligation to be understanding and flexible,” Hobbs said.

But everyone draws their own lines.

Hobbs, for example, doesn’t have much patience for Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who — citing her religious convictions — refused to issue marriage licenses, a duty of her elected government office.

Davis didn’t resign; she just decided not to do that part of her job.

Then there was Charee Stanley, a flight attendant for Atlanta-based ExpressJet, who became a Muslim and asked for accommodations so she wouldn’t have to serve alcohol to passengers. The company apparently initially made accomodations but recently put her on leave after a colleague complained. Supporters of former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran complained he was fired earlier this year for his criticism of homosexuality in a book he wrote about his faith. (Mayor Kasim Reed said Cochran was fired for failings in his judgment, not for his faith.) And Georgia lawmakers and business are split over a religious liberty bill.

Faith in the workplace is especially polarizing because it represents the collision of basic American beliefs: freedom of religion, freedom from religious pressures, and a strong work ethic, which basically demands that we quit our whining if we want to get ahead.

There’s a way for employers to work many of these issues out, I was told by Mark Goldfeder, a senior fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion.

“In general,” he said, “accommodation is the best way to go.”

I have a feeling the answer isn’t going to be that easy. There’s too much invested in the grandstanding.

Matt Kempner’s email: mkempner@ajc.comFollow him on Twitter: @MattKempner