In Theory: When religion comes into conflict with work

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.

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-- 

People should never be expected to act against their religious beliefs as part of their work. At the same time, no person should accept a job that will, in the course of regular duties, contradict his or her beliefs. Why did this Muslim woman take a position at Marks & Spencer when she knew that the job requirements were at odds with the teachings of her faith? I do not work on Saturdays — the Jewish Sabbath — and would therefore never apply for a job that required me to work on that day.

There's another point I'd like to make as well. While Islamic law prohibits Muslims from drinking alcohol, people of other faiths do not have to abide by those same guidelines. By refusing to sell a bottle of champagne to a non-Muslim, the M&S; employee was essentially imposing Islamic law upon the customer. In my opinion, this sets a dangerous precedent. We are not discussing universal morality here, but rather the specific laws that are meant for Muslims to follow. As a Jew, I only eat Kosher food products — but I have no problem with non-Jews eating non-Kosher food. Jewish laws are for Jews, just as Islamic laws should be for Muslims, and so on. Compelling others to abide by your religious beliefs is wrong, and should not be tolerated.

If this were a scenario in which the employee was asked to do something extraordinary and unexpected in the workplace, then I would lean toward giving the employee the right to adhere to her religious beliefs.

However, in this specific case, the Muslim woman accepted the job with M&S; presumably knowing that she would need to sell alcohol as part of the normal requirements of her job. Since she knew this, and considering that the purchaser was not a Muslim, I would require her to sell the champagne or resign from that position.

Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center
Glendale

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This story provides several interesting angles to consider. One is whether or not someone who objects to a business has any business being in said business, and the other has to do with the rather accommodating posture of an employer. It does seem odd to me that persons with philosophical objections to such things as alcohol or lingerie, ham, bikinis, pet dogs (or other Islamic objections reported in related news) should even work in such associated industries. Would a vegetarian make for a good butcher? Should an acrophobe expect employment building skyscrapers? Can an atheist pastor a Christian church? Maybe in alternate universes or even in the odd corners of this world such situations exist, but it would not only be odd, it would be absurd; the same with this checker at a store that markets what she spiritually abhors.

I understand objections to her employment in this conflicting environment, and I certainly don’t believe that everyone is qualified to work everywhere. Religion, like physical capacities, education and personality, should be a consideration only with respect to its disqualifying aspects. If the company was not forced to employ unqualified staff because of unreasonable discrimination laws, but chose to hire despite religious constraints, then it simply needs to better prepare for these situations. In my religion, there are often people who go beyond Scripture to maintain overly scrupulous lives that could create identical situations if they were hired similarly. Nobody should be forced to renounce their beliefs for work, but most jobs wouldn’t create this dilemma, so each should find their appropriate niche. That said, I think M&S; goes the second mile, and should not be boycotted for a single instance of awkwardness.

Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
Montrose

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A clerk allowed to categorically refuse to ring up an entire retail category probably shouldn't be working the cash register, it seems to me. (And incidents like this come to mind when I hear talk of the private sector being more efficient than government bureaucracy.)

Marks and Spencer seems to have accommodated both the customer and the employee in correcting their staffing boo-boo. Here in the colonies I have been directed out of self-serve and back into the staffed lines, clutching my booze in my liver-spotted hands. It was surprising that the store hadn't figured out how to manage checking I.D. in self-serve, or couldn't use common sense with someone obviously over 21, but my inconvenience was as minimal as in our M&S; case.

Do I think that people or businesses should be allowed to evade the law because of their religion, or impose their religious beliefs on the unwilling or uninterested? No, but this is not that.

Roberta Medford
Atheist
Montrose

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How did this story get into the news? Imagine it with me: you’re that customer. You wait in line a while, only to be told that you have to go to another line instead; the cashier, who’s obviously a religiously devout person, is prohibited by her beliefs from handling your bottle of champagne. What do you do?

If it were me, the first thing I’d do is try to negotiate: “Oh, OK; well, is it all right if I run it across the scanner and put it in the bag? Is it just physically handling it that’s the problem for you?” If she said that was fine, problem solved.

If she said no, she actually couldn’t sell it at all — well, OK, I might be peeved; I hate waiting. I might say, in clipped tones, “I sure wish you had put a sign up at the far end of the stand, saying ‘No alcohol sold in this line.’” Then I’d take my stuff to another line, buy it and leave. Probably I’d mention the incident to others, later, in a “huh-something-strange-happened” kind of way.

What I would not do is call the press, because I had been delayed in a store, buying one lousy bottle of champagne. It would never enter my mind, that my personal inconvenience was newsworthy to all the land.

People have been avoiding certain substances and foods for religious reasons for centuries; and yes, others have been inconvenienced by it — and somehow managed to move on with their lives. Next?

Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George's Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge

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