A reader writes:
I work for a very small family business, with seven staff, four of whom are Jewish of various levels of observance. The owner, who is the second generation of the family and president of the company is an Orthodox Jew. While he is not pushy about his faith and the observances that come along with the Jewish calendar, when Passover comes along, he seems to have forgotten that not everyone is Jewish. Four of us use the office refrigerator and only one is Jewish. In compliance with the Passover rituals, he puts a sign on the refrigerator about whether it is kosher for Passover or not (which is a whole other level of kosher) and if he decides it will be kosher, then us non-Jews cannot put even regular kosher food in the refrigerator, much less our ham sandwiches and other lunches. All other days of the year, the refrigerator is open for our use, including supreme pizza & bacon wrapped shrimp. Either the one Jewish employee will be inconvenienced or the three non-Jews will be inconvenienced. We have to argue for use of the fridge every Passover.
Also, in the spirit of Passover rules, he “cleans” out the non-Passover foods in our pantry, but really he just hides it in the cabinets and drawers and asks that we not eat that food during Passover. Much of it is our own personal food we’ve brought from home for ourselves and not for the office. He used to let us brew coffee, but last year he put up a huge fuss about not brewing coffee and that if we really needed it, we could bring it in from outside.
In spite of it being a small business, can he legally force us to abide by Passover rules? In the meantime, I just warn any potential new hire what the situation is at Passover and I take vacation.
Yes, he can do that.
Moreover, his religion actually requires it of him.
For this one, I had to turn to my sister, since she’s the only religious one in my family; the rest of us observe our Judaism by eating bagels and the occasional matzoh ball. My sister embraced Jewish rituals and observances with a ferocity that the rest of us have reserved solely for potato latkes, and accordingly she’s the family repository of all Jewish knowledge.
She informed me that Jewish law says that if you’re the full owner of a business, you cannot have non-kosher-for-Passover foods in your business during Passover. [For people who don't know how this works: Even if you're kosher the rest of the year, there's a whole different level of kosher that you're required to keep during the eight days of Passover -- which includes removing all traces of chametz (any leavened foods or other foods that aren't kosher for Passover) and using special Passover dishes and utensils (or using a process to make them kosher for Passover).] While different people follow the rules to varying extents, the rules are clear that observant business owners need to do this with their businesses during this period, if they’re the sole owner, just like they do with their homes.
So yeah, he has to clean out the refrigerator and restrict what’s put in there in order to comply with his religion. (If there were a non-Jewish partial owner of the business, this requirement wouldn’t apply, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case.) It’s not about pushing his religion on the rest of you; it’s about following his religion’s edicts with his own property, which includes his business.
This is perfectly legal too, since he’s not requiring you to violate your own religious beliefs (or lack thereof); he’s just telling you to modify your use of the refrigerator for a week. Hell, he could tell you that you could only put vegetarian foods in the refrigerator too — or only green foods or only pies — and that would be legal as well. His fridge, his rules. (Assuming, of course, that he’s not denying you reasonable accommodation for your own religious practices, or a disability-related need for refrigeration of, for example, insulin.)
I’d look at it as part of co-existing peacefully with someone of another faith.
And hey, at least he’s not denying you birth control coverage.