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Can Employees Refuse to Work for Political Beliefs?

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. | Last updated on

The Arizona shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords was a tragic and emotional event, which is why, despite being trained to handle disasters, local firefighter Mark Ekstrum refused to go to the Safeway parking lot.

He spent the two hours before his unit was dispatched to the scene of the Arizona shooting watching the events unfold on television, reports CNN. As an avid supporter of Gabrielle Giffords, he was distraught, and felt that he would be unable to perform his duties.

Mark Ekstrum communicated this to his Captain, but in a poorly-worded manner. The report, according to CNN, states that Ekstrum said he did not want to participate in the "political bantering" and that he was going to go home sick. It was recommended that Ekstrum receive a 20-day suspension.

It appears as though Mark Ekstrum objected to performing his job based on political reasons. Do employers have to accommodate an employee's political beliefs?

Beyond permitting employees' time to vote, probably not. Title VII and the American with Disabilities Act govern discrimination on a federal level, and neither statute protects a person from discrimination based on political belief. What this means for employers is that, under federal law, they do not have to change schedules or allow an employee to sit out because of their political convictions. However, some states do require employers to make reasonable accommodations for a person's political beliefs, so this may not apply to your business.

If you are not bound by both federal and state law to make accommodations for political beliefs, it may still be wise to do so in some situations. There is often a very fine line between a political objection and a religious objection, the latter of which requires accommodation under the law. Making the wrong decision could open you up to a religious discrimination lawsuit.

Gabrielle Giffords was shot over two hours before Mark Ekstrum would have arrived at the scene of the Arizona shooting. His crew was a second responder, meaning that his failure to remain at work had no ill effect on the outcome of events. He has no plans to sue, and has decided to retire.

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