Most employers know of the requirement to adjust any aspect of the working environment which may conflict with an employee’s religious beliefs. At the federal level, under Title VII, an employer must make reasonable accommodation for the religious observances of its employees, short of incurring an undue hardship. But what are religious accommodations? What proof may an employer request in order to establish that the employee is being sincere? The 4th Circuit recently examined a religious accommodation scenario that ended in an award of nearly $600,000 in damages and other benefits to the employee.
To show a violation of an employer’s Title VII duty to provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s religious observances, an employee must prove that he: (a) has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement; (b) informed employer of this belief; and (c) was disciplined for failure to comply with the conflicting employment requirement.
In EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., an employee of 37 years retired under protest after refusing to utilize a biometric hand-scanner system at the mine he worked due to his religious beliefs. The new electronic system replaced a manual system where the shift foreman manually tracked the time worked by employees. The scanner was thought to allow for more accurate and efficient reporting. However, the employee believed that participating in the hand-scanner system would have presented a threat to his religious commitments. Specifically, he believed using the technology signified the “mark of the beast,” as described in the Book of Revelation, which has negative connotations to some.
The employee and employer engaged in discussions on the issue. In fact, the employee provided a letter from his pastor vouching for his deep dedication and beliefs. In return the employer provided a letter from the scanner’s manufacturer, offering assurances that the scanner cannot detect or place a mark, including the “mark of the beast” on the body of a person.
Ultimately, the employee was told that he needed to use the scanner and the disciplinary procedures regarding the scanner would be enforced against him if he refused to do so. In lieu of using the scanner, the employee quit. The employee subsequently found out that two other employees with hand injuries, who could not be enrolled through a scan of either hand, instead could enter their personnel numbers on a keypad attached to the system. He then filed suit alleging he was constructively discharged from this position.
It could be argued that the employer was not actually challenging the sincerity of the employee’s religious belief, but rather whether the company policy actually conflicted with the religious belief. However, for the Fourth Circuit, the issue at the heart of this case was an employer’s inability to question the sincerity of an employee’s religious beliefs. The court found in favor of the employee and held that, regardless of the employer’s opinion, or the opinion of the scanner’s manufacturer, it is not the employer’s place to question the correctness or even the plausibility of an employee’s religious understandings.
While this case involved a religious accommodation in the form of a change to equipment used to clock in and out of work, religious accommodations take many forms. Other examples of religious accommodations include, but are not limited to, schedule changes or leave for religious observances, and dress or grooming practice. Employers would be well advised to carefully analyze any situation where an employee’s religious beliefs may influence their work environment to ensure accommodations are properly made when necessary.