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When an employee requests a religious accommodation, take it on faith that his belief is sincere

June 13th, 2017  |  Lisa Milam-Perez

I’m not sure what the employer was thinking, with this one. The case had drawn considerable attention because the facts were novel. And as religious accommodation cases go, the employer’s defense was novel, too.
The employer had just implemented a new biometric hand scanner system to better track its employees. A devout Evangelical Christian with 40 years at the company told his supervisor that he could not use the hand scanner. As he understood the Book of Revelation, the Mark of the Beast brands followers of the Antichrist, allowing the Antichrist to manipulate them. Use of a hand-scanning system would result in being so “marked,” he feared, “for even without any physical or visible sign, his willingness to undergo the scan … could lead to his identification with the Antichrist.” Because using the hand scanner would violate his sincerely held religious beliefs, he asked for a religious accommodation, some alternative means by which the company could follow his comings and goings.

I’m not sure what the employer was thinking with this one. The case had drawn considerable attention because the facts were novel. And as religious accommodation cases go, the employer’s defense was novel, too.

The employer had just implemented a new biometric hand scanner system to better track its employees. A devout Evangelical Christian with 40 years on the job told his supervisor that he couldn’t use the hand scanner. As he understood the Book of Revelation, the Mark of the Beast brands followers of the Antichrist, allowing the Antichrist to manipulate them. Use of a hand-scanning system would result in being so “marked,” he feared, “for even without any physical or visible sign, his willingness to undergo the scan … could lead to his identification with the Antichrist.” Because using the hand scanner would violate his sincerely held religious beliefs, he asked for a religious accommodation, some alternative means by which the company could follow his comings and goings.

But the employer was adamant. It was armed with written assurances from the scanner’s manufacturer that the system did not detect or place a mark, including the Mark of the Beast, on a person’s body. The manufacturer also offered its own interpretation of “the Scriptures,” explaining that because the Mark of the Beast “is associated only with the right hand or the forehead, use of the left hand in the scanner would be sufficient to obviate any religious concerns regarding the system.” But that was not the employee’s interpretation. And, faced with the employer’s insistence that he would be subject to discipline if he did not use the scanner (with his left hand, as the manufacturer recommended), the employee retired instead.

It’s unclear why the employer dug in its heels here, especially since, as the employee later discovered, the company had provided an alternative to the hand scanner for two employees with hand injuries. They simply had to enter their personnel numbers on a keypad attached to the system—a bypass that came at absolutely no cost or hardship to the company.

Because the employer refused to provide this accommodation for the employee’s religious beliefs, the EEOC brought a Title VII constructive discharge suit on his behalf, and won a jury verdict in his favor. The district court denied the employer’s motion  for judgment as a matter of law. Affirming, the Fourth Circuit, in EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., upheld the verdict, ruling there was sufficient evidence from which the jury could find a conflict between the employee’s bona fide religious belief and the requirement that he use the hand scanner.

Management lawyers typically advise employers: Never doubt the sincerity of an employee’s religious belief. Instead, focus on whether the religious accommodation that the employee has requested would be an undue hardship for the company. In this case, the employer didn’t doubt the sincerity of the employee’s belief. Where it went wrong, though, was in insisting that his religious belief was mistaken. In the employer’s view—which essentially relied on the scanner manufacturer’s interpretation of scripture—allowing the employee to scan his left hand instead of his right hand was enough to avert any potential religious conflict. In fact, at oral argument, the employer cited scripture passages “purporting to demonstrate that the Mark of the Beast can be imprinted only on the right hand.”

That the employer thought the employee’s religious beliefs were unfounded was beside the point, the appeals court explained. Nor did it matter that the scanner manufacturer, or even the employee’s own pastor, did not share his view. The jury specifically found that the employee’s religious belief was sincere, and that was all that mattered. As the appeals court pointed out, it wasn’t the employer’s place—or the court’s—“to question the correctness or even the plausibility of [the employee’s] religious understandings.”

Again, in religious accommodation cases, the dispute usually centers on the “undue hardship” question. Here, though, once the “sincerely held belief” issue was resolved, this was an easy case, the appeals court noted, because the employer conceded it would pose no additional burden on the company to have honored the employee’s religious belief. Indeed, that much was obvious, since the employer had readily granted an accommodation to other employees.

All that was left to make out a constructive discharge case was for the EEOC to show that the employee was put in such an intolerable position that he had no choice but to quit. And the appeals court affirmed: Demanding that an employee use a scanner that he “sincerely believed would render him a follower of the Antichrist, ‘tormented with fire and brimstone,’” was objectively intolerable.

Consequently, the employer was left to pay nearly $600,000 in damages, and learned a costly lesson: Courts (and juries, it seems) are quite deferential to employees’ asserted religious beliefs. Rather than debate scripture with an employee, take it on faith that his views are sincere, regardless of whether you deem them theologically sound.

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