Under Title VII, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for the religious observances of employees, unless doing so presents an undue hardship. But what types of religious beliefs require an accommodation? A recent case from the Fourth Circuit offers a surprising definition of a “religious belief,” and illustrates the need for employers to approach a request for accommodation with care.
The plaintiff in this case worked as a coal miner for the employer, Consol Energy, Inc., since 1975 without incident. In 2012, the employer implemented a biometric hand-scanner in order to track the attendance of employees. Use of the hand-scanner required that each employee scan his or her right hand while checking in or out of a shift.
The plaintiff, a life-long evangelical Christian, informed the employer that his religious beliefs prevented him from using the hand-scanner. Specifically, he believed that use of the hand-scanner would brand him with the “Mark of the Beast.” The employer requested a letter from a pastor explaining the need for an accommodation, which the plaintiff provided, along with his own letter explaining his beliefs. In a later meeting with the mine’s superintendent in June of 2012, the plaintiff offered to check in with his shift supervisor or punch in on a time clock, as he had done prior to implementation of the hand-scanner.
The employer responded with a letter from the hand-scanner manufacturer showing that the scanner did not detect or place a mark on the body of a person, and also contending that, because the “Mark of the Beast” was associated with the right hand, use of the plaintiff ’s left hand would be sufficient to satisfy his religious concerns. The employer then requested that the plaintiff provide another letter showing his church’s opposition to the use of the hand-scanner with his alternate hand. The plaintiff did not provide the letter.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the plaintiff, in July 2012, the employer provided an alternative to the handscanner to two other employees. Both of the employees were unable to scan either hand due to hand injuries. They were instead allowed to enter their personnel numbers on a keypad attached to the hand-scanner. In an email sent on July 25, 2012, the employer both simultaneously authorized use of the alternative system for the injured employees, and denied the accommodation to the plaintiff, stating that they would “make our religious objector use his left hand.”
In a later meeting in August, the plaintiff reiterated to the employer that he could not, “in good conscience,” use the hand-scanner. The employer then provided a copy of their disciplinary procedures, which provided for eventual discharge for failure to use the hand-scanner, and stated that the procedures would be enforced if the plaintiff refused to use the hand-scanner with his left hand. In response, the plaintiff retired under protest.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) brought suit on behalf of the plaintiff, alleging a failure to accommodate religious beliefs, resulting in the claimants’ constructive discharge, and seeking compensatory damages and injunctive relief. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, and the lower court denied punitive damages, but awarded compensatory damages and an injunction against the employer to refrain from future failures to make reasonable accommodations. The parties appealed to the Fourth Circuit.
To show a violation of the duty to provide a reasonable accommodation, an employee must prove that (1) he or she has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement, (2) he or she informed the employer of this belief, and (3) he or she was disciplined for failure to comply with the conflicting employment requirement.
In considering the first two elements of the plaintiff ’s claim, the Fourth Circuit found that the plaintiff had clearly laid out his religious objection to use of the scanner system in his dealings with the employer, and that there was ample evidence to show that he had a sincere belief that use of the hand-scanner was inconsistent with his religious beliefs. The employer did not attempt to dispute that the plaintiff ’s beliefs were sincere, but rather attempted to make an argument on the religious merits of the plaintiff ’s beliefs, contending, among other things, that scripture showed that “the Mark of the Beast can only be imprinted on the right hand.” The Court, however, noted that the law only requires a finding that an employee’s religious beliefs are sincerely held, and does not require a finding that the beliefs are correct, plausible, reasonable, or even that the religious views are commonly shared by the employee’s religious sect.
The employer then argued that the plaintiff was not disciplined, but instead had voluntarily resigned. The Court noted that, under the law, a plaintiff is constructively discharged when an employer deliberately makes the working condition of the employee intolerable. The Court reasoned that the employer put the plaintiff in an intolerable position when the employer completely failed to accommodate the plaintiff, knew of a costless option but refused to allow the option to the plaintiff, and required him to use the hand-scanner, which the plaintiff sincerely believed would make him a follower of the Antichrist.
On this basis, the Court found that the employer discriminated against the employee, and allowed compensatory damages to the plaintiff, but refused to allow punitive damages. In order to state a claim for punitive damages, an employee must show that the employer (1) intentionally discriminated against the employee, and (2) acted with malice or reckless indifference to the plaintiff ’s federally protected rights. The Court noted that “reckless indifference” requires that an employer discriminate while knowing or perceiving that the discrimination would violate Title VII. In this case, despite the actual violation of Title VII, there was not sufficient evidence presented to show that the employer appreciated that its efforts were inadequate, or risked inadequacy, under Title VII. In considering the issue, the Court noted that the employer engaged in long negotiations with the plaintiff and also offered him an alternative that did not require the scanning of his right hand.
Employers should be aware that an employee’s “bona fide religious belief ” does not need to be plausible, reasonable, religiously correct, or commonly shared by the employee’s religious sect. An inquiry into an employee’s religious beliefs should therefore be limited to determining whether they are “sincere.”
Upon notice of an employee’s religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement, an employer should refrain from disciplining the employee or creating “intolerable” working conditions leading to the employee’s resignation. If a reasonable accommodation can be made to alleviate the conflicting employment requirement, the employer should do so. If no feasible changes can be made, the employer should seek legal counsel to determine whether accommodating the religious belief would impose an undue hardship on the business.
For more information on this article, contact Bert Randall at firstname.lastname@example.org.