Indiana Court Finds Employee’s Attempt At Humor Was Not Protected Religious Expression

Ronald Ogle worked as a Community Employment Specialist for the Indiana Department of Workforce Development (IDWD). On November 10, 2012, he forwarded to his coworkers an email that included a picture of a barbeque restaurant named “Little Pigs Genuine Pit.” The restaurant’s marquee contained the words, “Safest Restaurant on Earth, No Muslims Inside.” In addition to forwarding the picture, Ogle commented, “I think this is wonderful.” Several coworkers found the email and Ogle’s comment offensive and complained to management. Ogle subsequently was suspended and discharged effective December 12, 2012.

Ogle administratively appealed his termination, and the State Employees’ Appeals Commission reinstated him to his previous employment. Ogle then filed an action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in federal district court in the Southern District of Indiana claiming that he was entitled to compensatory damages because of the IDWD’s alleged religious discrimination against him.

IDWD filed a motion to dismiss Ogle’s federal complaint. The court, the Honorable Judge Pratt presiding, granted the IDWD’s motion. In rejecting Ogle’s religious discrimination claim, the court noted that “[t]he e-mail that Mr. Ogle sent, despite referencing a religion, did not make any claim to Mr. Ogle’s religion or his beliefs. In fact, the record shows that Mr. Ogle has not specified that he is a member of any particular religion at all.” Finding that there were no facts showing that Ogle was expressing his religious beliefs, the court added, “Mr. Ogle’s e-mail was simply a poorly calculated joke that some people found offensive, and although it may not have warranted termination, it also does not warrant protection under Title VII. Mr. Ogle has not presented, and the Court is not able to find, any Title VII precedent in this Circuit that protects an employee who makes derogatory comments about another religion.” The court also concluded that Ogle had not timely filed his Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge within the prescribed period.

Key Takeaways

The Ogle case is instructive to Indiana employers who deal with religious discrimination issues. Employers have important obligations to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and practices, but employers also possess the corresponding obligation to protect employees from religiously-offensive material. The Ogle case demonstrates that an employee may not cloak religiously-offensive material under the guise of freedom of religious expression. Employers that prohibit religiously-offensive conduct or material and train their supervisors, managers, and employees on this policy are more likely to avoid the type of conduct exhibited in the Ogle case and successfully defend themselves in employment litigation that may arise from such conduct.

Brian L. McDermott is a shareholder in the Indianapolis office of Ogletree Deakins.

 
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Ronald Ogle worked as a Community Employment Specialist for the Indiana Department of Workforce Development (IDWD). On November 10, 2012, he forwarded to his coworkers an email that included a picture of a barbeque restaurant named “Little Pigs Genuine Pit.” The restaurant’s marquee contained the words, “Safest Restaurant on Earth, No Muslims Inside.” In addition to forwarding the picture, Ogle commented, “I think this is wonderful.” Several coworkers found the email and Ogle’s comment offensive and complained to management. Ogle subsequently was suspended and discharged effective December 12, 2012.

Ogle administratively appealed his termination, and the State Employees’ Appeals Commission reinstated him to his previous employment. Ogle then filed an action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in federal district court in the Southern District of Indiana claiming that he was entitled to compensatory damages because of the IDWD’s alleged religious discrimination against him.

IDWD filed a motion to dismiss Ogle’s federal complaint. The court, the Honorable Judge Pratt presiding, granted the IDWD’s motion. In rejecting Ogle’s religious discrimination claim, the court noted that “[t]he e-mail that Mr. Ogle sent, despite referencing a religion, did not make any claim to Mr. Ogle’s religion or his beliefs. In fact, the record shows that Mr. Ogle has not specified that he is a member of any particular religion at all.” Finding that there were no facts showing that Ogle was expressing his religious beliefs, the court added, “Mr. Ogle’s e-mail was simply a poorly calculated joke that some people found offensive, and although it may not have warranted termination, it also does not warrant protection under Title VII. Mr. Ogle has not presented, and the Court is not able to find, any Title VII precedent in this Circuit that protects an employee who makes derogatory comments about another religion.” The court also concluded that Ogle had not timely filed his Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge within the prescribed period.

Key Takeaways

The Ogle case is instructive to Indiana employers who deal with religious discrimination issues. Employers have important obligations to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and practices, but employers also possess the corresponding obligation to protect employees from religiously-offensive material. The Ogle case demonstrates that an employee may not cloak religiously-offensive material under the guise of freedom of religious expression. Employers that prohibit religiously-offensive conduct or material and train their supervisors, managers, and employees on this policy are more likely to avoid the type of conduct exhibited in the Ogle case and successfully defend themselves in employment litigation that may arise from such conduct.

Topics:  Civil Rights Act, Freedom of Religion, Religion, Termination, Title VII

Published In: Administrative Agency Updates, Civil Procedure Updates, Civil Rights Updates, Labor & Employment Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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