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My employer has started a 7-week series of classes, to which all employees currently on the clock are expected to attend. We are paid for the time the same as if we had been working. The self-help classes are by a "Foot Zone" therapist, and so far have involved both pseudo-science and religious undertones and terminology specific to the LDS ("Mormon") faith. The subject matter falls far, far outside the scope of work at our small software company. (Here's an article about the speaker, Julie Cheney)

Both the CEO and our one HR employee (small company, about 40 employees) are fully in support of these classes. These two people backing these classes means that even if it's not technically mandatory, there's certainly pressure for employees to attend or to at least not complain openly about it.

Everyone in attendance was under the impression that it was mandatory, though at the end there was an unclear comment by the CEO indicating that it might not be truly mandatory.

I plan to have a 1-on-1 talk with my manager to bring up the problems I have with this series of courses. I expect he will then bring it up with upper management and/or HR. I have plenty of good points and I already know that this manager disliked the class fairly strongly.

In the US, and in Utah, are there any laws prohibiting or proscribing this sort of thing by an employer? Does it matter if they are mandatory, as opposed to strongly encouraged but technically not mandatory?

UPDATE: As of Friday, Jan 8th, it's officially mandatory. Good grief.

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(For a definitive answer, consult an employment attorney).

According to the federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, in general,

An employee cannot be forced to participate (or not participate) in a religious activity as a condition of employment.

This requirement comes from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Answer 14 on this page elaborates:

Some private employers choose to express their own religious beliefs or practices in the workplace, and they are entitled to do so. However, if an employer holds religious services or programs or includes prayer in business meetings, Title VII requires that the employer accommodate an employee who asks to be excused for religious reasons, absent a showing of undue hardship.

Similarly, an employer is required to excuse an employee from compulsory personal or professional development training that conflicts with the employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship. It would be an undue hardship to excuse an employee from training, for example, where the training provides information on how to perform the job, or how to comply with equal employment opportunity obligations, or on other workplace policies, procedures, or legal requirements.

So the questions would be:

  • Is the activity in question a "religious service or program"? This might be ambiguous, and you might have to consult an employment attorney for a more informed opinion.

  • Does it "conflict with your sincerely held religious beliefs or practices"?

  • Would it be an "undue hardship" for the employer to excuse you?

Note that this law might not apply to employers with fewer than 15 employees. It also doesn't apply if you work for an employer such as a church, or a religiously affiliated hospital or educational institution, or the like.

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    Thanks! Does it matter if the employer and employee share the same religion? (I should hope not, but...) – Martin Carney Jan 9 '16 at 20:17
  • @MartinCarney: I have no idea. – Nate Eldredge Jan 10 '16 at 1:40
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    The last line of Q8: An employer also should not assume that an employee is insincere simply because some of his or her practices deviate from the commonly followed tenets of his or her religion. indicates that the employee's beliefs do not need to precisely match the common beliefs of the religion, so it shouldn't matter if the employer is a member of the same religion but has somewhat different beliefs. – Martin Carney Jan 11 '16 at 20:21
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At common law, an employer can require their employee to follow any lawful and reasonable direction. I can't give you US case law on this but in Australia it has been held (R v Darling Island Stevedoring & Lighterage Co Ltd; Ex parte Halliday (1938) 60 CLR 601, 621–622) that this means employees are obliged to comply with a command that ‘relates to the subject matter of the employment’, ‘involves no illegality’ and is ‘reasonable’.

What you are being asked to do appears to 'involve no illegality' and be 'reasonable'. However, it appears that it might not 'relate to the subject matter of the employment'. You may be within your rights to refuse to attend.

However, on a practical note: put up and shut up. One of the core tenets of being a successful employee is to do whatever the boss wants even if you think it's stupid.

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    One of the core tenants of being a pushover is doing whatever people want even if you think it's stupid. There's a fine line here. – Shelvacu Jan 9 '16 at 21:10
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    @shelvacu, Dale: tenets. Core tenets. (Etymologically, a tenant is one who holds something; a tenet is something that is held.) – phoog Jan 9 '16 at 21:48

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