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January 17, 2011
Conflict Between Religion and Work Policies?

A Florida couple worked as property manager (she) and maintenance technician (he) at an apartment complex. Devout Christians, they often displayed a religious picture or other decoration in the rental office. Management told them this violated the company’s policies, but the couple several times insisted on leaving the décor in place. Things finally came to a head over a large poster.

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What happened. The “Davises” were working at their third Hallmark Management location, where they were given a rent-free apartment next to the management office. It was on the office wall they had hung a large poster featuring flowers and the caption, “Remember the Lilies …. Matthew 6:28.”

Their supervisor arrived one day to inspect the office in preparation for a visit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates federal funding given under the rural development program. Having asked whether the poster contained a Bible citation, to which Ms. Davis answered affirmatively, the supervisor demanded the poster come down. She cited especially the Federal Housing Act, which bars discrimination of any kind in rental or purchased housing. Ms. Davis refused to comply, saying she wanted to ask her husband; she then left the office to find him. The supervisor spoke with her boss, who told her to remove the poster herself, which she did.

When the Davises returned, an argument ensued, during which, they later testified, the supervisor fired Ms. Davis and turned to Mr. Davis: She said, “You’re too religious; you’re fired, too.” The Davises sued Hallmark Management for religious discrimination. A judge in federal district court ruled entirely for Hallmark, dismissing their case. They appealed to the 11th Circuit, which covers Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.

What the court said. Appellate judges felt there were too many questions of fact for the lawsuit to be dismissed. Was the supervisor aware of the Davises’ religious convictions, and that they were in conflict with Hallmark policies? Was any kind of accommodation for the Davises’ beliefs offered? Would such an accommodation have created an undue hardship for Hallmark? Was the supervisor’s alleged statement to Mr. Davis direct evidence of discrimination?

These questions, judges said, should be decided by a jury, so one will hear the case. Dixon and Dixon v. The Hallmark Companies, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, No. 10-10047 (12/9/10).

Point to remember: Displaying religious décor in a rental office no doubt violates fair housing laws, because it implies that non-Christians or unbelievers may not be welcome. But Hallmark should have explored accommodation.


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