Public Employers Beware: The Other Religious Discrimination Claim

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As a public employer, your actions are considered the actions of the government or the “state.” This dual persona brings with it additional obligations and challenges that private employers do not face. Some of these obligations include the requirement to provide due process rights to employees, and the challenges include a seemingly endless variety of lawsuits that your employees may bring against you. Lawsuits unique to public sector employers include unreasonable search and seizure challenges, including e-mail and text message based challenges, free speech challenges, and alleged violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from endorsing any particular religion and, in fact, endorsing religion at all. In a recent case involving the Establishment Clause, Milwaukee Deputy Sheriffs' Association v. Clarke, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found that a county sheriff violated the Establishment Clause by having a Christian organization deliver a faith-based presentation to employees at mandatory meetings. The court concluded that the Sheriff, by introducing the Christian group and allowing them to speak at mandatory employee meetings, either endorsed the group or at the very least, gave the appearance of endorsing the group. This endorsement constituted a violation of the Establishment Clause, and the Sheriff’s Department was ordered to cease and desist from further violations and was also required to pay over $38,000 in fees and costs.

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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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