The Art of Accommodating Religion While Respecting LGBTQ Rights at Work – Are Your Company’s Practices the Next ‘Masterpiece’?

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last week in Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission did not answer the question on everyone’s mind: can a person claim exemption from laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation based on that person’s religious beliefs? As a result, the decision will likely further mobilize advocates on both sides of the debate to find the next high-profile test case that will force the Court to reconsider this question.

Like a cake, there are many layers to what constitutes both unlawful discrimination based on sexual orientation and protected religious expression.

The Illinois Human Rights Act (IHRA) prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (including gender identity), and the 7th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, which covers Illinois, interprets Title VII to ban such discrimination as well. Federal contractors subject to Executive Order 13672 must also avoid discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as a matter of contract. But Title VII also requires reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs and practices, including religious expression in the workplace. And the icing on this cake is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits states from passing laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion.

Many had expected the Court’s Masterpiece Cake ruling to address what some consider a conflict between these laws when it comes to employee objections to work orders that violate their religious beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity, particularly following the Supreme Court’s 2014 Hobby Lobby ruling in which the court found that private, for-profit corporations are exempt from providing contraceptive coverage if doing so would violate their sincerely held religious beliefs. The court, however, sidestepped the issue altogether.

For these reasons, it’s critically important that employers be aware that their handling of employees’ religion-based objections to work orders in conflict with their views on people who identify as LGBTQ is likely to draw heightened scrutiny and public attention, Now more than ever, businesses are wise to seek help from an employment lawyer experienced in workplace discrimination and accommodation laws when dealing with these issues. It’s no piece of cake.

Gary Savine is a Chicago employment lawyer and founder of Savine Employment Law Ltd. In his practice, Gary routinely litigates and arbitrates employment disputes on behalf of both companies and workers. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.