A cautionary tale.
Article Type: Column
Subject: Chaplains (Services)
Chaplains (Analysis)
Workers (Religious aspects)
Author: Nimon, Kim
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association Publisher: American Psychotherapy Association Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 American Psychotherapy Association ISSN: 1535-4075
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 12 Source Issue: 3
Topic: Event Code: 360 Services information; 290 Public affairs
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 208639920
Full Text: When I tell people of my research interest surrounding workplace chaplains, the typical response is one of disbelief. While most are familiar with the concept of military and hospital chaplains, few recognize the role chaplains serve in government entities including police stations, fire departments, and educational institutions. Even fewer are familiar with the notion that chaplains provide employee care in companies ranging from Pepsi-Co and Tyson's to local fastfood franchises and banks.

If the person I talk with has virtually any human resource (HR) expertise, their next question is likely to be: Aren't there legal issues with employing a corporate chaplain?

In the last issue of the Annals (Nimon, 2009), I reported that the primary function of corporate chaplains is to provide employee care. My research (Nimon, Philibert, & Allen, 2008) also indicates that in some companies, corporate chaplains conduct clerical activities that have a religious overtone (e.g., distribution of faith-based material, religious studies, prayer meetings). I find that it is the religious overtone of clerical activities that are typically the cause of concern for my HR friends. Workplace chaplaincy leaders such as Gil Stricklin (Sturgeon, 2004) and Mark Cress (Starcher, 2003) have reported no legal charges against their firms or clients throughout their companies' history. However, my HR friends are usually concerned that some employees may feel that corporate chaplains are trying to push their faith on them, which in turn could lead to a hostile work environment.

Fry and Slocum (2009) echoed this concern and indicated it is important to avoid the negative consequences of a hostile work environment that may result when employers emphasize a particular religion in the workplace. They recommended that more research is needed to determine how it is possible for companies to avoid conflict between religious practices and legal statutes.

In response to the need identified by Fry and Slocum (2009) and in support of the Academy of Certified Chaplains, I researched federal case law to determine if there were any published decisions surrounding a claim of employee religious harassment against a company that involved workplace chaplain activities. I am hopeful that the following information will guide chaplains and the companies that employ them in developing best practices that allow for employee care in a manner that prevents religious harassment and mitigates legal entanglements.


When considering the legal implications of mixing business and religion, it is important to note that U.S. courts normally try to balance employers' rights to express their values through their business and the right of employees not to be discriminated against (Spragins, 2006). While employers have rights to be free from government interference in the exercise of their religion in operating their business, pursuant to the First Amendment, employees have rights to be free from a religiously-hostile work environment, pursuant to Title VII (EEOC v. Preferred Management Corporation, 2002). Court reports indicate that EEOC v. Preferred Management Corporation involved the clash of these two sets of religious rights, perhaps to an unprecedented degree. This case is also unique in that it was the only case found in the LexisNexis Academic Legal Research case law database that involved a claim of employee religious harassment against a company that involved workplace chaplain activities.

In EEOC v. Preferred Management Corporation (2002), the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought claims of religious harassment in violation of Title VII on behalf of six employees against their employer, Preferred Management Corporation (Preferred). The EEOC alleged that the employer systematically created or condoned a hostile and abusive work environment based on religion. In response, Preferred Management Corporation moved for summary judgment.

With one exception, the court denied Preferred's motion for summary judgment. In support of the ruling, the judge noted facts relevant and pertinent to the case. In the recitation of these facts, the court cited a representative sample of examples to conclude that the EEOC had presented sufficient evidence of an "intimidating and offensive environment which altered the conditions of employment, and thus amounted to religious harassment under Title VII." Amongst the individual claims of harassment, several included a reference to one of Preferred's two staff chaplains or the functions they facilitated. The chaplain function most commonly cited was weekly devotions.

Court records indicate that Preferred offered religious gatherings, referred to as devotions, to its employees on a weekly basis. Although Preferred had no written policy expressly requiring employees to attend devotions, the judge found that the EEOC presented sufficient evidence to raise a reasonable inference that the expectation of attendance amounted to a form of coercion. Consider the following excerpts of witness testimony from the judge's published opinion:

* A Preferred manager (not listed as a plaintiff in the case) testified that, as a manager, she was required to be a "role model", which meant, among other things, that she was "expected" to attend weekly devotions and that attendance at devotions was mandatory.

* When plaintiff Sherry Stute decided not to attend devotions, her supervisor told her she really ought to appreciate devotions more because the chaplain did a lot of work preparing for them. Ms. Stute took this to mean that she was expected to go to devotions. Her supervisor also told her that it was mandatory for her and her staffto attend an in-service on fasting that the chaplain presented.

* Plaintiff Mary Mulder was told by one of Preferred's chaplains that the company offered a devotional time and that she was welcome to attend. Ms. Mulder understood that the devotions were optional and went as often as she could, because she enjoyed them. At times, when Ms. Mulder did not attend devotions, her supervisor would ask why she did not go and observed that the CEO likes for everyone to attend.

* Plaintiff Sondra Sievers was told by her supervisor that the CEO of the company knew which employees attended devotions and that she expected employees to attend.

Although Preferred argued throughout its motion for summary judgment that employees were informed before they joined Preferred that it was a Christian business and that attendance at devotions and other religious activities was not mandatory, the judge found that a jury could reasonably conclude that religion at Preferred was not a voluntary practice. Citing EEOC v. Townley Engineering dr Manufacturing Co. (1989), the judge indicated that "protecting an employee's right to be free from forced observance of the religion of his employer is at the heart of the Title VII's prohibition against religious discrimination" (620-621). The judge further held Preferred's absence of an anti-harassment policy as evidence of its failure to prevent religious harassment or correct it upon discovery.

When considering EEOC v. Preferred Management Corporation (2002), it is important to note that the case involved additional religious activities and discriminatory employment actions on the basis of religion that did not involve Preferred's staff chaplains. In addition, the court did not appear to rule against what the chaplains did. Rather it appeared that the court focused on the voluntary versus mandatory nature of participation in religious activities including attendance at devotions. While there was no evidence to indicate that chaplains set the expectation that devotions were mandatory, there was evidence to indicate that Preferred management did.

Even though this appears to be an isolated case of religious harassment that involves workplace chaplain activities in a single organization under somewhat extreme conditions, two best practices seem apparent:

1. Supervisors and managers should avoid expression regarding religious activities performed or facilitated by workplace chaplains that might be perceived by subordinates as coercive.

2. Employers should have an anti-harassment policy that covers religious harassment. The EEOC website indicates that such a policy should:

* Clearly explain what is prohibited.

* Describe procedures for bringing harassment to management's attention.

* Contain an assurance that complaints will be protected from retaliation.

* Include multiple avenues for complaint.

In EEOC v. Preferred Management Corporation (2002), the judge noted that EEOC's evidence indicated that Preferred was incapable of viewing its religious principles and practices as a form of harassment. She further noted that EEOC's evidence indicated that since those engaged in the harassment included the CEO of the organization, any such complaint would have been futile. This leads me to a question I would like to ask our readers: What can workplace chaplains do to prevent religious harassment or correct it upon discovery? If you would like to respond to the question, please visit my blog at kim.profnimon.com/chaplainblog. I look forward to your responses.

Summary judgment motions dispose of legal claims in a case, if the court grants the motion. On a motion for summary judgment, the court uses the evidence of record to determine whether there is any material dispute of fact that requires a trial. While a granted motion for summary judgment effectively ends a lawsuit on the merits of the given claim, the denial of a summary judgment motion indicates that the case should proceed to trial.

Useful Links and Further Reading

http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/vii.h tml. http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/best_practices_religion.html.

Rudin, J. P., & Harshman, E. (2004). Keeping the faith but losing in court: Legal implications for proselytizing in the workplace. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, 16, 105-112.

Zugelder, M. T., Champage, P. J., & Maurer, S. D. (2007). Dealing with harassment in all of its forms. Journal of Employment Rights, 12, 223-238.


EEOC v. Preferred Management Corporation, 216 E Supp. 2d 763 (S.D. Ind. 2002).

EEOC v. Townley Engineering & Manufacturing Corporation, 859 F.2d 610 (9th Cir. 1988).

Fry, L. W., & Cohen, M. E (2009). Spiritual leadership as a paradigm for organizational transformation and recovery from extended work hours cultures. Journal of Business Ethics, 84, 265-278.

Nimon, K. (2009). Chaplains interview with Dr. Kim Nimon. Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association, 12(2), 62.

Nimon, K., Philibert, N., & Alien, J. (2008). Corporate chaplaincy programs: An exploratory student relates corporate chaplaincy activities to employee assistance programs. Journal of Management, Spirituality, & Religion, 3, 231-264.

Spragins, E. (2006). Legal do's and don'ts. Fortune Small Business, Retrieved July 1, 2009, from http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fsb/fsb_archive/200fi/02/01/8368187/ index.htm

Starcher, K. (2003, November). Should you hire a workplace chaplain? Regent Business Review, 8, 17-19.

Sturgeon, J. (2004, October 22). The ministering touch: Right for your office? Human Resource Executive, Retrieved July 1, 2009, from http://www.hreonline.com/HRE/story.jsp?storyId=4222846 By Kim Nimon, PhD

By Kim Nimon, PhD

Kim Nimon, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of North Texas, where the main tenet of her research agenda focuses on improving human performance through the practice of workplace spirituality. She became aware of corporate chaplaincy programs during her doctoral studies and began researching how they fit within the larger context of workplace spirituality. Her research on workplace chaplains has been published by the Journal of Management, Spirituality, & Religion and the International Society for Performance Improvement.
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