Americans will celebrate anything. Heck, this month alone we have “National Drink Wine Day,” and for some, drinking wine is a religion.
For the past 10 years, employees have steadily filed workplace-based religious-discrimination claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There are no fewer than 16 religious holidays or “holy days” in February. While you may be familiar with Ash Wednesday and St. Valentine’s Day, many others exist.
But this case involves Christianity and a strongly held belief. A coal mining company in West Virginia installed a time clock with a biometric hand scanner and implemented a policy requiring all workers to clock in and out by using the hand scanner.
A veteran worker of 35 years objected to the policy on the basis of religion; he believed it would be used as “part of an identification system and collection of personal information that would be used by the Christian Antichrist, as described in the New Testament Book of Revelation, to identify his followers with the ‘mark of the beast.'”
The worker asked to be excluded from the hand scanner policy as a religious accommodation, stating he feared “damnation from its use.”
The source of the “mark of the beast” concern is found in Revelation 13:16-17: “And he caused all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bound, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads. And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.”
The worker’s supervisors told him to use his left hand (since the Bible verse references only “right hand”), but the worker wanted to continue submitting manual attendance records. Scanning the left hand was the only accommodation offered to the worker. Other workers were allowed to bypass the hand scanner because of physical incapacities.
In response to his renewed requests for accommodation, the company gave the worker a copy of its progressive discipline policy, which included possible termination after only four missed hand scans. The worker retired (imagine the fun at that retirement party) after realizing he would be fired if he did not use the hand scanner.
Enter the EEOC, which filed a civil action on the worker’s behalf claiming the company’s refusal to provide the requested accommodation to the employee was religious discrimination under federal law. The West Virginia jury agreed and awarded the worker $150,000 in compensatory damages and almost $450,000 in back pay and front pay. The court issued a permanent injunction against the company’s further religious discrimination of workers.
Title VII requires reasonable accommodation of employees’ “sincerely held religious beliefs, observances, and practices” when requested, unless accommodation would impose an undue hardship on business operations.
Undue hardship under Title VII is defined as “more than de minimis” cost or burden, which is a significantly lower standard for employers to meet than the “undue hardship” defense under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is defined instead as “significant difficulty or expense.” In this case, all the company had to do was make an exception for the worker and move on.
Here is a checklist for companies on accommodating religious beliefs:
- Has management learned of a religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement?
- Determine whether the worker sincerely holds the belief — and keep in mind there’s no requirement that the belief be widely held or popular;
- Analyze all reasonable accommodations — be creative.
- Document all exchanges with the worker and keep the interactive process going.
- Explore all options before dismissing all options as “undue hardships.” (The EEOC says an “accommodation may cause undue hardship if it is costly, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on other workers’ rights, or requires other workers to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.”)
Some options are flexible scheduling, voluntary shift swaps, job reassignments, and changes to workplace policies or practices.
- By all means, be reasonable. Don’t refuse a simple accommodation on principle unless you have job security and your company can afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and lost productive employee time on lawsuits.
Heather G. Anderson is an employment law attorney in Knoxville with Miller Anderson Law Group, PLLC. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and find her @HRLawyer Knox.
This article appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel on Feb. 21, 2016.