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How Far Must an Employer go to Properly and Consistently Accommodate Employee Religious Beliefs?

A recent 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Case highlighted an example of the uncommon, unique, and potentially high-risk nature of religious accommodations in the workplace.  In U.S. EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 10385 (4th Cir.), a longtime employee and evangelical Christian retired under protest after his religious beliefs conflicted with his employer's new time keeping system, and their unwillingness to accommodate his religious objections to it.  A jury found the employer discriminated against the employee and awarded him almost half a million dollars in damages.

The employee, Mr. Beverly Butcher, worked for the employer for almost 40 years with no disciplinary or performance issues.  Butcher was also an ordained minister and very involved at his evangelical Christian church.  The employer installed a biometric hand scanner time clock at its facility as a more accurate and efficient replacement to its previous manual timekeeping system.  Butcher testified at trial that based on his understanding of the Bible, he feared he would be marked by the Antichrist if he used the biometric scanner.  Butcher sincerely believed that being so marked would allow the Antichrist to manipulate him and subject him to eternal punishment.

Butcher brought his concerns to the employer through his union representative and presented the employer with a letter from his pastor corroborating his beliefs, at the employer's request.  Butcher also wrote his own letter to the employer explaining his views in relation to specific passages of the Bible. The employer did not agree to allow Butcher to use an alternative time keeping method and instead argued that, based on the employer's interpretation of the Bible, Butcher would be ok if he scanned only his left hand and not his right hand.  However, at the same time the employer was accommodating two other employees who could not use the biometric scanner because of hand injuries by allowing them to use a keypad connected to the biometric system.  In short, based on his employer's stated position that if Butcher didn't scan his hand he would be progressively disciplined, and their refusal to accommodate him, Butcher testified that he felt he would be fired if he continued to refuse to use the hand scanner.  Instead, Butcher retired under protest.  

In Consol Energy, the employer's willingness to accommodate injured employees regarding the timekeeping system and unwillingness to accommodate a sincere religious belief to the same system, despite already showing the ease with which an accommodation could be made, proved to be the employer's downfall.  

Not all cases are so clear cut.  How can your business avoid losing a religious accommodation claim?  And how far do employers have to go to accommodate religion in the workplace?

The 4th Circuit in Consol Energy reminds us that "Title VII makes it an unlawful employment practice 'to discharge any individual... because of such individual's... religion.'" See 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2(a)(1).  Title VII defines religion to include "all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief."  Employers do not have to accommodate an employee's religion if it imposes an "undue hardship on the... employer's business." See 42 U.S.C. 2000e(j).  

To win in court on a religious accommodation claim, an employee must prove they have a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement, that they informed their employer of the belief, and that they were disciplined for failing to comply with the employment requirement.  However, it is not the employer's place to question the accuracy or plausibility of an employee's religious beliefs and understanding, the employer must make reasonable accommodations of employee's religious beliefs unless an accommodation would cause them an "undue hardship."  The analysis of whether there is an undue hardship can be fact-specific to a certain claim or type/size of business. In general, employers usually must accommodate religious requests that don't require more than minimal administrative costs to the business, whether the requests are for religious needs commonly known to the employers (such as time off for holidays or days of worship, dress-code accommodations for religious dress, prayer breaks, etc.) or not (aversion to biometric time clocks).  Please see Attorney Nancy Joerg's article on common religious accommodations.

Call attorney Tyler J. Bohman at 312-629-9300 for guidance on all your employment issues and for more information about the Phone Client Program.  Phone Clients can ask questions and receive further information on religious accommodations and the applicability of the Illinois Human Rights act and other state and federal employment and labor laws to your business. 

Tyler J. Bohman is an attorney at Wessels Sherman, a management-side labor and employment attorney in Chicago, Illinois. Mr. Bohman successfully defends Businesses in all areas of Employment and Labor law in both State and Federal courts. Mr. Bohman can be contacted at tybohman@wesselssherman.com or 312-629-9300.

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