There are multiple aspects of life that people may feel comfortable discussing around the water cooler at work — politics and sports, friends and family.
Religion, however, is not only often overlooked — it can be intentionally avoided.
But beyond awkward interactions, faith traditions and spiritual practices shape the way we labor, our relationships with co-workers and popular perspectives on the vocations we should pursue.
Religion can also become a central point of contention in discussions around labor law, employee-employer relations and other issues of import to workers and their managers.
Take, for example, how SCOTUS recently ruled unanimously in favor of an employee seeking exemption from work on his Sabbath.
In this guide, ReligionLink offers background, resources and sources to help you understand — and report on — the many intersections between religion and labor.
In the news ...
Some corporations may be reluctant to engage with religion, but an increasing number are including religious identifications in their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts to foster a sense of belonging among employees and better serve a range of customers across religious traditions.
Especially since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, and under the banner of diversity, equity and inclusion, a growing number of companies and corporations are making accommodations for their employees’ religious needs.
At a recent conference organized by the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, Brian Grim — the foundation’s founder — shared how new belief-based employee resource groups are finding a welcome home in the world’s largest corporations. With the aim of providing a place where employees can “bring their whole self to the workplace,” Grim’s Foundation reported that 43 companies (8.6%) — including such corporations as American Airlines and Intel, PayPal and Capital Group — publicly reported having faith-based ERGs.
The global pandemic also changed the way we work and relate to colleagues. Initially forced into working from home, we have now reconsidered “not only how we work, but how we treat those with whom we work.” By extension, remote work asks new questions on how employers can accommodate religious diversity “out of” the workplace and how employees “can work remotely for God’s glory.”
Amid such trends and changes, the issue of how far employers must go to accommodate their employees’ religious practices was recently taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court in Groff v. DeJoy.
The case in question was brought by Gerald Groff, a Christian and U.S. Postal Service worker who refused to work on Sundays because of his religious beliefs. As ReligionLink reported in April 2023, the U.S. Postal Service offered to find other employees who could swap shifts, but when no co-worker would take Groff’s place and Groff did not work, U.S. Postal Service subsequently fired him. Groff then sued the U.S. Postal Service under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming his religious beliefs were not reasonably accommodated. Lower courts sided with the Postal Service, concluding that Groff’s requested accommodation posed an undue hardship on the mail delivery service.
The question before the court was whether the inconvenience to Groff’s co-workers qualifies as an “undue burden” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the point that the employer can be excused from providing religious accommodations. If the court decides in favor of Groff, it could expand religious protections for workers included in the U.S. Congresss 1972 amendments to the Civil Rights Act. Also at issue is whether the burdens other employees would face due to religious accommodation can be factored into the analysis.
The Court’s decision in the 1977 Trans World Airlines. Inc. v Hardison decision defines the standard as “more than a de minimis burden.” For decades, lower courts have looked to this decision to define the standard. Groff argued that Hardison should be overruled and replaced with a “significant difficulty or expense” standard. The U.S. Solicitor cautioned the court against completely disavowing decades of case law.
The Court decided in favor of Groff, thus expanding religious protections for workers.
Background and resources
These more recent developments, however, are in keeping with a long-standing relationship between religion and work. Religious beliefs have long informed how people viewed their work and shaped how they thought employers ought to treat them.
Back in 1905, sociologist Max Weber famously coined the term “the Protestant work ethic” to refer to the value Calvinist theologians attached to hard work, thrift and efficiency, which significantly influenced the emergence of modern capitalism.
Beyond Christianity, other traditions have developed their own perspectives on faith and labor. In the Torah, there are over 100 commandments related to money, and Jewish rabbinic literature delves deeply into the topic of whether certain kinds of business are fit (kashrut) from Jewish ethical and legal points of view. And, while Judaism has no commandment to work, the Hebrew scriptures famously have numerous injunctions to rest from work or that work not be too onerous.
Some Hindus believe all work can function as a form of worship, and Muslims call on numerous hadith (traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) to comment on workers’ relationships to God, their work, their employers and their fellow employees.
Of course, these principles can be practically applied in many ways and can take numerous forms in the lives of America’s faithful: Whether it be how Mexican Pentecostal farmworkers “carved out a robust and vibrant existence in the social no-man’s land of California’s industrial agriculture” or how Midwestern Protestants, Catholics and Muslims share space every day as worshippers, employees and employers “on the bloody floors of meatpacking plants.”
On the one hand, religious leaders have at times supported organized labor’s efforts. On the other hand, they have also sided with employers and corporate interests. At times this meant faithful workers felt pulled between their churches, employers and labor unions.
This is where the religion reporter might step in. Going beyond theological perspectives on work, journalists can explore and examine how religious practitioners embody the realities of faith in the everyday contexts of work.
To further inquire into the intersectional nature of religion and work, reporters might start with the resources below, which explore various angles in the U.S. and abroad:
- Read Sowing the Sacred: Mexican Pentecostal Farmworkers in California, by Lloyd Daniel Barba (2022).
- Read Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley, by Carolyn Chen (2022).
- Read Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland, by Kristy Nabhan-Warren (2021).
- Read Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and Liturgy, by Matthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Wilson (2020).
- Read Religious Diversity in the Workplace, edited by Jawad Syed, Alain Klarsfeld, Faith Wambura Ngunjiri and Charmine E.J. Härtel (2017).
- Read “The role of religion in female labor supply: evidence from two Muslim denominations,” by Pelin Akyol and Çağla Ökten (2022).
- Read “Religion and Labor in the 20th Century,” by Matthew Pehl (2018).
- Read “Religion: one major reason why Europe’s labor unions are so powerful,” by Lew Daly (2012).
- Read “Labor and Religion,” edited by Leon Fink and Joseph A. McCartin (2009).
- Read “Where Religious Identity Fits into Your DEI Strategy,” by Megan Johnson, Amber Hacker, Michael Hill and Eboo Patel (2023).
- Read “Being Pagan in the Workplace: Know Your Rights,” by Avery Caya (2022).
- Read “Labor Rights in Islam,” by Abdool Rahman Khan (2022).
- Read “What Is the Kafala System?” by Kali Robinson (2022).
- Read “Bringing Caste into the DEI Conversation,” by Simran Jeet Singh (2022).
- Read “Accommodating Sikhs in the Workplace: An Employer’s Guide,” from the Sikh Coalition (2022).
- Read “Religious Discrimination,” from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2021).
- Read “A Buddhist Perspective: Is Universal Basic Income Genuinely Caring, Compassionate, and Wise?” by Ernest C. H. Ng (2020).
- Read “Development of a ‘Karma-Yoga’ instrument, the core of the Hindu work ethic,” by Ashish Rastogi, Surya Prakash Pati, Pankaj Kumar and Jitendra Kumar Dixit (2020).
- Read “Understanding the Subjective Dimension of Work from a Buddhist Perspective,” by Ferdinand Tablan (2020).
- Read “Vocation and Dharma Throughout Life’s Stages: A Hindu Perspective,” by Vidya Thirumurthy (2018).
- Read “Wicca at work,” from the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding (2014).
- Read “Work is worship,” by Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami (2010).
- Read “Zen in the Workplace: Approaches to Mindful Management,” from Tricycle (1996).
- Read “Labor,” from the Jewish Virtual Library.
- Read “Cate Blanchett on faith, work and being the only woman in the room,” from The Sydney Morning Herald on June 27, 2023.
- Read “Presbyterian Church in America rejects abuse response measures at Memphis annual assembly,” from The Tennessean on June 22, 2023.
- Read “Indian Catholic religious answer nun’s call to solidarity, join protests,” from National Catholic Reporter on June 19, 2023.
- Read “Certain ethnic, religious holidays may get new recognition in Michigan,” from Michigan Live on June 15, 2023.
- Read “LGBTQ vs. Religion: How a gay guidance counselor’s firing could affect millions of workers,” from USA Today on June 5, 2023.
- Read “Vaccine-Based Religious Bias Claims Skyrocketed at EEOC in 2022,” from Bloomberg Law on June 5, 2023.
- Read “Faith at Work conference builds momentum on religious inclusion in workplace,” from Religion News Service on May 26, 2023.
- Read “Religious Maine Health-Care Workers’ Covid Vaccine Suit Back On,” from Bloomberg Law on May 25, 2023.
- Read “Rabbi Matt Cutler to receive state labor-religion leadership award,” from the Times Union on May 20, 2023.
- Read “Corporate Diversity Programs Get Religion,” from The Wall Street Journal on May 20, 2023.
- Read “Co-workers could bear costs of accommodating religious employees in the workplace if Supreme Court tosses out 46-year-old precedent,” from The Conversation on May 15, 2023 (Analysis).
- Read “How many times do hijab-wearing Muslim judges in America need to break the glass ceiling?” from Religion News Service on May 9, 2023 (Commentary).
- Read “Supreme Court considers ‘religious freedom’ ploy to undo labor rights,” from People’s World on April 24, 2023.
- Read “Pilgrimage and revolution: How Cesar Chavez married faith and ideology in landmark farmworkers’ march,” from The Conversation on March 24, 2023.
- Read “Religious Discrimination in International Employment Law,” from Lexology on March 1, 2023 (Analysis).
- Read “Religious Minorities Look to Benefit From New Accommodation Test,” from Bloomberg Law on Feb. 2, 2023.
- Read “Pandora’s Box of Religious Exemptions,” from Harvard Law Review in February 2023 (Analysis).
- Read “Balancing Anti-Discrimination Policies with Religious Protections,” from the Society for Human Resources Management on Jan. 23, 2023 (Analysis).
- Read “Giant Eagle, UFCW Accused of Religious Discrimination and Unfair Labor Practice,” from Progressive Grocer on Jan. 18, 2023.
- Read “A new Supreme Court case could turn every workplace into a religious battleground,” from Vox on Jan. 18, 2023.
- Read “Labor Law: United Airlines settles religious discrimination case for Buddhist pilot,” from the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Nov. 12, 2022.
- Read “Labor Law: Kroger settles religious discrimination dispute over ‘rainbow’ symbol,” from the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Nov. 5, 2022.
- Read “The Right’s Religious Liberty Agenda Is on a Collision Course With Labor Law,” from The Nation on Oct. 17, 2022.
- Read “How to Talk About Religion at Work,” from Harvard Business Review on Sept. 16, 2022 (Commentary).
- Read “When work becomes your religion, nothing else matters,” from Berkeley News on Aug. 30, 2022.
- Read “The Four-Day Workweek and the Buddhist Work Ethic,” from Buddhistdoor Global on June 18, 2022 (Commentary).
- Read “Study: Christians, Jews and Muslims encounter workplace discrimination differently,” from Religion News Service on March 16, 2022.
- Read “Remote Work Increases the Need for Freedom of Religion and Belief,” from the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation on March 5, 2022 (Commentary).
- Read “For global companies, diversity and inclusion can get lost in translation,” from Quarts on Dec. 13, 2021 (Commentary).
- Read “How Meatpacking Work and Faith Intersect in the Heartland,” from Religion and Politics on Nov. 16, 2021.
- Listen “Laborers From India Are Suing New Jersey Hindu Temple For Worker Abuse,” from NPR on June 2, 2021.
- Read “They’re working from home. Their religious beliefs are no longer respected,” from ZD Net on April 10, 2021 (Analysis).
- Read “Working Remotely to the Glory of God,” from Tabletalk in March 2020 (Commentary).
- Read “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable,” from The Atlantic on Feb. 24, 2019 (Analysis).
- Listen “The Jewish perspective on work and rest,” from the Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Feb. 10, 2019.
- Read “How religious roots help American labor keep the faith,” from The San Diego Union-Tribune on Sept. 1, 2017 (Commentary).
- Listen “Dispute Over Prayer Breaks Divides Muslim Meatpacking Workers,” from NPR on Jan. 14, 2016.
Mario I Aguilar is professor of religion and politics at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. His research focuses on Buddhist traditions, Marxist religion, vegetarianism, religion and labor and Indian religions.
Iftikhar Ahmad is a labor relations expert and a recent graduate from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations who now works for the Planning Commission of Pakistan. He has previously worked in the Pakistani government’s Ministry of Labour and Manpower. His research interests encompass comparative labor relations/law, tripartism and the informal economy. Besides initiating the labor rights awareness campaign, he has also launched Pakistan Labor Report, a web page that brings together all labor-related news across Pakistan.
Zahra Babar is associate director for research at the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar. Previously, she has served with the International Labor Organization and the United Nations Development Program. Her current research interests include rural development, migration and labor policies, and citizenship in the Persian Gulf states.
Kelly J. Baker is the editor of Women in Higher Education, a feminist newsletter evaluating the state of women in higher ed. She is also a freelance writer with a doctorate in religious studies, covering several interest areas, including religion, higher education, gender, labor, motherhood and popular culture. She has written two books: Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 and The Zombies Are Coming!: The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture.
Lloyd D. Barba is a historian of religion in the Americas with training in Latinx history; American race, ethnicity and immigration; and the American West/Mexico borderlands. His scholarship on Mexican farmworkers in California (1906-1966) is based on oral histories and extensive archival research.
Carolyn Chen is an associate professor in the ethnic studies department at the University of California, Berkeley, whose research interests include religion, ethnicity, immigration and sociology of work.
Erik Dane is an associate professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis. He specializes in the study of organizational behavior and has researched the effectiveness of workplace mindfulness programs.
Rabbi Michael Feinberg is an ordained Reconstructionist rabbi and identifies as a democratic socialist. He has described providing sanctuary for immigrants as an act of “radical hospitality,” in line with the religious principle of welcoming the stranger. He is a veteran of successful living wage campaigns, and a longtime active member of the Religious Socialism Working Group of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). He is the former executive director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition.
Leon Fink is a specialist in American labor, immigration history and the Gilded Age/Progressive Era who serves as interim director of the Ph.D. concentration in the History of Work, Race, and Gender in the Urban World at the University of Illinois Chicago. He also edits the journal Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas.
Steven Garber is the senior fellow for vocation and the common good for the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. He was formerly professor of marketplace theology and director of the masters in leadership, theology and society at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
The Global Faith and Work Initiative aims to equip pastors and city leaders to edify the laity of the church to be missional in all areas of their vocation and life, leading to the flourishing of their cities. It grew out of Timothy Keller’s Redeemer, New York City.
Brian J. Grim is president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, which makes the case that religious freedom is good for business. Formerly at Pew Research Center, Grim is a leading expert on the socioeconomic impact of restrictions on religious freedom and international religious demography.
Andrew Hafenbrack is an associate professor of business at the University of Washington in Seattle. He researches the effectiveness of workplace mindfulness programs.
Rana Haq is a professor at Laurentian University’s School of Commerce and Administration in the faculty of management. Her research interests are in organizational behavior and human resource management, managing diversity, equality and inclusion in the workplace.
The Jewish Labor Committee serves as a voice in the labor movement, working to enable the Jewish community and the trade union movement to work together on important issues of shared interest and concern.
Matthew Kaemingk is a Christian ethicist and public theologian engaging questions of Christian involvement in politics, culture and the marketplace. He serves as the Richard John Mouw Associate Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Theological Seminary. He also directs the Mouw Institute of Faith and Public Life.
The Labor Religion Coalition of New York State is a nonprofit that works with faith groups, labor organizations and other communities in a statewide movement for social, racial and economic justice. E. West McNeill (they/them) serves as executive director and primary contact.
Paul Lambert is the Secretary/Treasurer and Senior Business Fellow at the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation. He helps to develop and deliver the foundation’s in-company and campus-based executive education seminars on religious diversity & inclusion in the workplace.
Amanda Lanzillo is a historian of South Asia, researching artisanship and experiences of labor, technology and social change within Indian communities. She is the author of Pious Labor. She is a lecturer at Brunel University London.
Marketplace Leaders Ministries describes itself as “a voice and agent to create tools that inspire, teach, and connect Christian believers to resources and relationships in order to manifest the life of Christ in their workplace call.” It is run by President and Chairman, Os Hillman.
Lynne Marks is a professor of history at the University of Victoria (Canada). She is an expert in North American religions and has written on maternity, irreligion, working-class women and lived religion in English-speaking Canada and the United States.
Kristy Nabhan-Warren is a professor of religion at the University of Iowa. She has written widely on the role of the Virgin Mary in Latino cultures. Her research focuses on Catholic studies. She is the author of Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland.
Sara Niccoli is a program representative at the New York State Nurses Association,She is a former executive director of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition.
Ernest C. H. Ng is adjunct assistant professor at the Centre of Buddhist Studies, University of Hong Kong, where he teaches undergraduate and postgraduate courses on Buddhism and economics. Ng is a fellow at the European SPES Institute and author of Introduction to Buddhist Economics.
Matthew S. Pehl is an assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University and author of The Making of Working-Class Religion. According to his online bio, “class identity and religious cultures are the connective tissue that unite most of his [research] projects.”
Daromir Rudnyckyj is professor of anthropology at the University of Victoria, where he serves as director of the Counter Currency Laboratory and principal investigator for the Futures of Money project. Rudnyckyj’s book Beyond Debt: Islamic Experiments in Global Finance examines efforts to create a transnational financial network independent of debt and efforts to make Kuala Lumpur the “New York of the Muslim World” by transforming it into the central node in a transnational Islamic financial system
Farah Siddiqui works on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Google with a focus on religious and cultural inclusion in the workplace. Prior to taking on this role, she co-founded and was the Global President of Faithforce, the Interfaith Employee Resource Group at Salesforce. She’s a bridge-builder, a diversity & inclusion advocate and speaker, and has advised numerous corporations as they embark on their interfaith or faith-inclusion journeys.
Charan Singh is CEO and founder-director of the EGROW Foundation in Bangalore, India. His research and writing focus on economics and management.
Simran Jeet Singh is a Sikh scholar and historian of religion in South Asia. Simran currently serves as Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s Religion & Society Program. He writes frequently for various outlets, including TIME, CNN and Religion News Service.
Nancy Sinkoff is professor of Jewish studies and history at Rutgers University. Sinkoff’s research interests include Jewish history, Jewish politics, Jewish labor and the Jewish left.
The Theology of Work Project is an independent, international organization dedicated to researching, writing and distributing materials with a biblical perspective on nonchurch workplaces. It produces a podcast called “Making It Work.”
Ben Witherington III is a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. A prolific author and an ordained minister, Witherington can talk about the historical tensions between Christians and Jews and current cultural manifestations of those tensions. He is the author of Jesus and Money: A Guide for Times of Financial Crisis, an examination of “what Jesus has to say (and doesn’t say) concerning wealth and poverty, money and spending, debt and sacrificial giving.”