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Jury Holds Employer Liable for Failure to Accommodate Religious Belief

As Published in the February 2015 PELRAS Newsletter Update

Published on: Mon 8th Aug, 2016 By: Joseph M. Motto

Reasonable accommodation is a familiar concept to employers accustomed to complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, but it also applies to situations involving religious beliefs.  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on religion.  Under Title VII employers must offer reasonable accommodations to employees whose sincerely held religious beliefs or practices conflict with workplace requirements, unless doing so would create an undue hardship for the employer.  Plaintiffs alleging a failure to accommodate religious beliefs may establish a prima facie case of religious discrimination by demonstrating that they: (1) held a sincere religious belief that conflicted with a job requirement; (2) informed their employer of the conflict; and (3) were disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting requirement.  Webb v. City of Philadelphia, 562 F.3d 256, 259 (3d Cir. 2009).  If a plaintiff can establish those factors, the burden shifts to the employer to show that it either made a good faith effort to reasonably accommodate the religious belief or that the requested accommodation would have imposed an undue hardship on the employer.  Id.  Some typical accommodations include permitting employees to take time off on religious holidays or permitting them to wear items required by their religious beliefs.

Failure to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs recently resulted in a jury verdict against an employer in U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Consol Energy, Inc., 1:13-cv-00215-FPS (N.D. W.Va. 2015), following two years of litigation.  The employer had implemented a new biometric electronic hand scanning system to track employees’ time and attendance for payroll purposes.  The equipment had the ability to scan and store information about the "geometry" of users’ hands for future identification purposes.  The employee, who worked for the employer for over thirty-five years and described himself as an evangelical Christian, objected to the biometric scanning system on religious grounds.  The employee stated that he believed the scanning technology was associated with the mark of the beast referenced in the biblical book of Revelation as being placed on the right hands or foreheads of followers of the antichrist.  The employer’s response was to give the employee a letter it had received from the equipment manufacturer addressing that concern and to offer to allow the employee to scan his left hand.  The employee instead asked that he be permitted to either personally check in and out with his supervisor or submit his time manually.  The employer refused and threatened the employee with disciplinary action if he did not use the scanner.  The employee then retired "under protest" several years earlier than he originally planned to stop working.  The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission subsequently sued the employer on the employee’s behalf, asserting that he had been denied a reasonable accommodation for his religious beliefs and had been subject to unlawful disciplinary action in the form of a "constructive discharge" when he was forced to resign to avoid the conflict with his beliefs.  

Under Title VII it did not matter whether the employee’s beliefs regarding the hand scanner were part of the official teachings of any church or were shared by other members of his faith.  Instead, the proper inquiry was whether the individual raising the issue had a sincerely held religious belief that conflicted with the requirement.  Once the jury determined, based on testimony at the trial, that the employee in Consol Energy did have a sincerely held religious belief regarding the use of the hand scanner, the question then became whether the employer had attempted to reasonably accommodate that belief and whether the requested accommodations placed an undue burden on the employer.  The employer’s argument that allowing the employee to record his time and attendance without using the scanner would be an undue burden was fatally damaged by the fact that it had permitted two employees who were missing fingers to not use the scanner and instead submit their time and attendance records through alternate means, which was exactly what the employee with the religious objections was requesting.  

Although reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs comes up less often than reasonable accommodations for disabilities under the ADA, employers should follow a similar process when they become aware that an employee is seeking a religious accommodation.  The employer should meet with the employee to discuss potential accommodations.  If the requested accommodations have been permitted for other employees, the employer will have a difficult time proving that the accommodation would impose an undue burden.