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In Theory: When religion comes into conflict with work

January 02, 2014

British department store Marks & Spencer has apologized after a Muslim sales assistant refused to sell a customer a bottle of alcohol.

The customer, who hasn't been named, said, “I had one bottle of champagne, and the lady, who was wearing a head scarf, was very apologetic but said she could not serve me... I've never come across that before.”

The checkout worker was said to have been “extremely apologetic” and asked the customer to wait for another worker to become available.

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An M&S spokesman said, “Where we have an employee whose religious beliefs restrict food or drink they can handle, we work closely with our members of staff to place them in suitable roles... As a secular business we have an inclusive policy that welcomes all religious beliefs whether across our customer or employee base.”

Q: Was Marks & Spencer in the right? Or should a religious person be expected to go against their beliefs as part of their work?


Both Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and the writer of the book of Timothy speak of a servant being worthy of his hire. Jesus is sending out the 70 to preach and evangelize and he says the community should support them. The writer of Timothy, whether it is the Apostle Paul, or someone writing as the Apostle Paul, is speaking to a more diverse community, talking about how the widows, elders and workers in general should be treated.

Certainly religious beliefs should be respected. Religious beliefs give birth to the morals by which we live — they are the dos and don’ts of our individual worlds. They govern where we might choose to work. For instance, I grew up in a rather serious church that did not joke about the Jesus stories. Can you imagine my personal sense of moral disarray when I moved to New York City and was courted by producers, and eventually cast in “Godspell?” It felt like the most blasphemous acting job I had ever accepted. Surely I couldn’t do this show; my church friends couldn’t come to see me in this spectacle. But I so wanted to act and sing in a New York show and the show’s producers were not going to change the script of a hit musical to dovetail with my religious beliefs. I had to choose if the job was a good fit for me. I chose to do the show; problem solved.

Certainly employers want to be seen as hiring a diverse group of employees. It is good advertising for a varied and assorted clientele. However, employees and employers must reach firm agreements about employee duties and procedures beforehand so that employees can comfortably work, and customers experience no inconvenience. Every “hire” may not be worthy (a good fit) for every servant.

The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel
Burbank

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The conflict between the sales assistant’s beliefs and the store’s policy of selling liquor is an issue that should have been worked out between the employee and Marks & Spencer long before she served any customer. The burden lies mostly on her because she knew she’d be required to sell alcohol and somewhat less on the store because they placed her in a situation where the conflict would inevitably arise. Of course, that’s assuming they knew she had a problem with selling alcohol. The store does have a policy of assigning people to positions that don’t conflict with their beliefs. The time for her to take a stand was when she interviewed for the job, not when it would make a customer unfairly wait longer for service.

In no way do I condemn this woman for taking a stand for her faith. She was right not to violate her conscience. Nobody should be required to compromise their faith for the sake of their employment. And it was right for the store to apologize to the customer because the store offered to sell it in the first place and then denied the customer when he actually tried to buy it.

Jesus’ counsel to living out our faith is to “let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16). We can’t please everybody all the time, but we should make every effort not to frustrate them for the sake of our faith.

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church
Burbank

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In this case, I believe the company was right in respecting the religious beliefs of the employee. The same sort of thing occurs at some restaurants in this country: If an underage employee takes your order for a glass of wine or beer, he or she is not allowed by law to serve you and has to get an older employee to pour the drink. And I have heard of no complaints because of the aforementioned practice.

However, it would have been wrong of the company, either there or here, to have no available employee to satisfy the customer's request. I have heard of pharmacists, for example, in this country who will not provide birth control pills to a woman because he or she did not believe in birth control. That's wrong, I believe, even if the pharmacist in question owns the business. As of today in the United States, we have freedom of choice, both to drink or not to drink, to conceive or not to conceive, and that freedom overrides, in my opinion, the sign that says, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” No you don't!

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge

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I don’t think there is right and wrong when it comes to the workplace and modifying job requirements for an employee based on their religious beliefs. The M&S department store was very respectful of the employee’s religious convictions and I think that's great. However, this is certainly an exception to standard operating procedures in most businesses and not something that an employee should feel entitled to.

Rather, I think it is the responsibility of the employee before they accept a position to understand the duties and responsibilities they will be expected to perform. If there are parts of the job that they cannot perform with a clear conscience, they should look for employment elsewhere.

There is such a wide range of religious beliefs and moral convictions that it would be difficult for an employer to take them all into consideration when assigning job responsibilities. The employer is responsible to accurately explain the work situation and expectations to a prospective employee. If the person then accepts employment, I think it is implicitly understood that they agree to perform the job activities as described.

Often there is no one right answer concerning religious convictions even for Christians who share a common worldview. For example, say two Christians live in Reno, where most employment opportunities are connected to the gambling industry. Both have personal convictions against gambling. For one, even working in the casino restaurant doesn't “feel” right. However the other person is able to work in the casino with a clear conscience because they personally are not gambling.

Which person is “right”? I believe they both are because each one is keeping their personal conscience clear through the actions they take.

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church
Pasadena

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