Preaching worker cast out of fish plant

Employer’s request that worker not preach to complaining co-workers was necessary to cultivate a respectful workplace and retain staff, tribunal says

A human rights tribunal has found a British Columbia company did not discriminate against a very religious worker when it fired him for refusing to stop preaching to his co-workers.

Seann Friesen was hired by Fisher Bay Seafood in early 2006 as a nightshift cleaner at its processing plant in Sidney, B.C. He soon became known to the company as a good and reliable employee. However, other problems arose from Friesen’s interaction with his co-workers.

Friesen was a member of the Pentacostal church and he believed in preaching about his religion to everyone he was around. He said he would only refrain from preaching to someone if that person “completely refused” to share his beliefs and told him so. He said no-one he worked with on the night shift told him to stop preaching, except for one co-worker who was very religious herself and did not want to discuss religion with him.

Preaching to co-workers led to complaints

About a month after Friesen began working for Fisher Bay, management received a few complaints from his co-workers about his preaching. They had several meetings with Friesen during which they would ask him to stop preaching to the person who complained and Friesen would agree. Friesen said none of the co-workers directly asked him to stop. Management told him they wanted all employees to feel comfortable at work and to do so they had to respect each other’s beliefs. They also asked him to stop preaching during work hours so he could concentrate on his work, but he was free to do so on his lunch hour.

However, Fisher Bay management continued to receive complaints about Friesen’s preaching. The company had trouble keeping workers and, especially since they considered Friesen a good worker, they wanted to be reasonable. It was company policy to refrain from discipline unless absolutely necessary and to look for solutions to problems with the hope of retaining employees. To that end, they started moving employees who complained about Friesen to the day shift.

After he was asked to stop preaching to a particular co-worker, Friesen was given a written warning dated May 11, 2007, telling him to stop preaching to employees during work hours and mistreating them by speaking rudely about their religion or beliefs. However, shortly thereafter, Friesen began talking about religion with the same co-worker, who then insulted him. The next day, the worker’s gear was soaked with water. Friesen denied involvement and Fisher Bay management didn’t reach any conclusions. However, Friesen felt management thought he was responsible.

Preaching continued despite requests to stop

On May 30, 2007, the plant manager felt things were getting out of hand and called a meeting with Friesen. He asked Friesen why he continued to preach when he had agreed not to after management spoke to him about the complaints. Friesen replied by saying it was “more important to shine the Lord’s light than clean a fish plant.” The manager told him if he didn’t stop preaching at work he would be let go. Friesen said preaching was more important and left the office.

Fisher Bay found it was not acceptable to have assert his beliefs over any other employee’s at the workplace so it terminated Friesen. Two weeks later, it offered him a job with the same pay if he kept his religious beliefs to himself, but Friesen refused and filed a human rights complaint, saying Fisher Bay discriminated against him because of his religious beliefs.

The British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal found Friesen was completely sincere in his religious beliefs and his termination was the result of his religious practice. This established a prima facie case of discrimination.

However, the tribunal found Fisher Bay did not discriminate against Friesen under the Human Rights Code because its request for him to stop preaching was made in good faith and was related to the job.

“The standard adopted by Fisher Bay was that Mr. Friesen was not to preach to other employees during his work hours,” the tribunal said. “This standard was for a purpose rationally connected to maintaining a mutually respectful, functioning work force at the plant.”

The tribunal also found Fisher Bay was respectful towards Friesen by talking with him about the complaints and looking for solutions to keep him and his co-workers satisfied, such as moving some complainants to another shift. It was also important to the company to do what it could to retain employees.

Fisher Bay gave Friesen plenty of opportunity to resolve the situation, the tribunal said, but he continued to preach during work hours, contrary to the company’s requirement he not do so. The only solution other than termination would be to have Friesen work the night shift alone, which normally required two to three cleaners.

The tribunal said Fisher Bay was not required to create a solitary night shift job for Friesen just so he wouldn’t upset others. As a result, its requirement that he not preach to others at work was a bona fide occupational requirement and non-discriminatory under the code. Friesen’s complaint was dismissed.

For more information see:

Friesen v. Fisher Bay Seafood and others, 2009 BCHRT 1 (B.C. Human Rights Trib.).

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