Office Depot recently found itself accused of religious discrimination because one of the company’s stores refused to make copies of a flier. The situation arose in August when Maria Goldstein asked the Schaumburg, Illinois Office Depot store to make 500 copies of a flier called “A Prayer for the Conversion of Planned Parenthood.” The store refused, saying that its corporate policy prohibits “the copying of any type of material that advocates any form of racial or religious discrimination or the persecution of certain groups of people.”
Ms. Goldstein sought legal assistance from the Thomas More Society, a national public interest law firm that provides pro bono legal services in cases like this. Thomas Olp, a volunteer lawyer with the Society, undertook to represent Ms. Goldstein, a Roman Catholic, on the discrimination claim. Subsequently, Office Depot CEO Roland Smith issued an apology to Ms. Goldstein. Olp explains the discrimination issue in this report.
Olp explains that discrimination on the basis of religion in places of public accommodation is prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as by the Cook County, Illinois human rights ordinance. Public accommodations are businesses that offer products and services to the public. Olp says that public accommodations laws require businesses covered by such laws to offer full, fair, complete services to anyone who comes seeking those services.
Olp points out that the discrimination that is forbidden includes discrimination on the basis of religion. In order to win a discrimination case, a plaintiff would have to establish that there is causal link between the discrimination that is alleged and the plaintiff’s religion. The claim against Office Depot would be that it refused to copy Ms. Goldstein’s flier and that the refusal was because of the religious content of the language in the flier. The discriminatory act was refusing Ms. Goldstein less than the full use of the services normally provided. (Office Depot would have allowed Ms. Goldstein to copy the flier on its copiers but refused to do the copying itself.)
Olp says that Office Depot’s initial response was that the refusal to make copies was not based on the religious content of the flier, but rather on a company policy against the copying of material that contains hate speech. Olp’s position is that Office Depot is not allowed to extract what it considers hate speech from the religious content of the prayer that was the principal content of the flier. Olp feels that Goldstein has “a pretty good case” should the matter proceed to the filing of a lawsuit.
A variation of this scenario might involve the situation where an employee of a business objects to doing something because of the employee’s religious beliefs. In that situation, says Olp, a business needs to deal with two laws. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits a business from discriminating against an employee based on the employee’s religious beliefs and requires the business to accommodate those beliefs. In this case, says Olp, if an employee of Office Depot had objected to making the copies for religious reasons, Office Depot could have had a different employee make the copies.
Olp says that Office Depot sent two letters regarding the standoff. The first letter said that the company was backing its employee. However, the second letter said that the company apologized and would make the copies. Ms. Goldstein points out that this is a complete reversal of the company’s initial position. She wants the public to understand that her approach to counseling people outside abortion facilities is not hateful, but conciliatory.
Thomas Olp, a volunteer lawyer with the Thomas More Society, started his career as a labor attorney with the National Labor Relations Board, Peoria, Illinois regional office and later with Montgomery Ward’s Baltimore regional office. He practiced labor and employment law and general litigation in Washington, D.C. from 1985 until 1994, first with Finley Kumble and then with Ross & Hardies, where he was a partner. From 1994 to present he has served as Vice President and General Counsel for Connor-Winfield Corporation, Aurora, Illinois. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of Sequence Media Group.