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Let’s not shy away from talking religion

August 31, 2023

This summer has been tumultuous on the equity, diversity and inclusion front. Faith based initiatives against Pride events and the death by suicide of a retired Toronto school principal following a DEI training program are two incidents that generated discussion.

These public debates often revolve around competing rights, like freedom of expression versus freedom from discrimination, or religion versus sexual orientation. Which rights trump which? Can employers force employees to wear a Pride symbol when it offends their religious beliefs? Do employees have the right to respectfully express their concerns about matters taught during DEI training? 

While DEI training often highlights and focuses on specific topics, like racism, homophobia, ableism, ageism and sexism, religion often remains outside the discussion. Employers avoid talking about religion for many reasons, including fear of encouraging disagreement or legal liability. Some avoid speaking about religion believing that religion can cause divisiveness or hatred.

But this is not a healthy approach. Religion and spirituality are central to many people’s lives and are inseparable from their approach to work and work life. A Pew Research Center analysis of survey data suggests people who are active in religious congregations tend to be happier and more civically engaged than either religiously unaffiliated adults or inactive members of religious groups.

And sadly, not only does ignorance exist but religious discrimination also exists and, in some cases, is increasing. In 2021, there were 3,360 hate crimes reported to police in Canada of which 884 were religious hate crimes.

Avoiding religion will not help. Employers should encourage religious literacy to help people come together.

Here are some things organizations can do to encourage religious diversity:

  • Include religion in DEI training: Focus on education and prevention. Many people don’t know about religions outside their own or the ones they grew up in and are afraid to ask. And talk about religious discrimination. While antisemitism and Islamophobia are often cited, don’t forget hatred against other religions like Catholicism (in 2021, after antisemitic hate crimes, most religious hate crimes targeted Catholics).
  • Encourage religion and spirituality: Include significant religious holidays in your annual calendar so events are booked around them. Allow for flexibility so employees can choose which holidays are meaningful for them. When serving food and alcohol at events, recognize people may have religious restrictions. Some companies have designated prayer, meditation or serenity rooms to allow employees a safe space to pray or meditate.
  • Create an inclusive environment: Make sure religious diversity is reflected in your policies. Have a code of conduct that outlines appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. Encourage events that promote awareness of “the other” and highlight shared values.

Employers have long avoided religion in the workplace. That needs to change. Employers should recognize that religious diversity can be an asset.