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Jury verdict to stand in favor of devout Christian who couldn’t use biometric hand scanner

By Lisa Milam-Perez, J.D.

In a case that drew much attention over an evangelical Christian’s claim that he could not use an employer’s newly implemented biometric hand scanner because it carried the “mark of the beast,” the Fourth Circuit held the evidence at trial supported the jury verdict in the employee’s favor on his Title VII religious accommodation claim. The employer offered alternatives to the hand scanner for employees with nonreligious objections to its use, but refused to accommodate the employee’s sincerely held religious belief. The employer didn’t doubt the sincerity of that belief, but it felt the employee was mistaken. That was, of course, “beside the point,” the appeals court said. 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.” The appeals court also rejected several challenges to the trial court’s evidentiary rulings, and the court’s holdings regarding lost wages and punitive damages (EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., June 12, 2017, Harris, P.).

Biometric hand scanner. A coal miner, the employee worked for the company for nearly 40 years when it implemented a biometric hand scanner to better monitor employees’ comings and goings. A devout Christian (an ordained minister and associate pastor, in fact), he told his supervisors that his religious beliefs prevented him from using the system, and he asked for a religious accommodation. It was undisputed that his religious beliefs were sincerely held: as he understands 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.”

However, the company refused to accommodate his beliefs. It offered 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.” The employee disagreed. Still, the employer said he could use his left hand, as the manufacturer indicated, or face discipline. He retired instead.

Later, the employee learned from his union that the company was providing an alternative for other employees who were unable to use the scanner due to hand injuries; they were allowed to enter their personnel numbers on a keypad attached to the system (at no additional cost or burden to the employer). Because no such reasonable accommodation was offered the employee, the EEOC brought a religious discrimination suit on his behalf.

Verdict. A jury found in the EEOC’s favor and awarded compensatory damages and lost wages and benefits to the employee, but not punitive damages. The trial court found the evidence did not support a punitive damages award; it also denied the employer’s motions for judgment as a matter of law or a new trial, and refused to amend its findings as to the employee’s right to damages for lost wages. Post-trial, the employer filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, a motion for a new trial, and challenges to the damages award. All were denied, and the employer appealed. The EEOC filed a cross-appeal challenging the court’s denial of punitive damages.

Sincerely held belief. Affirming, the appeals court found there was sufficient evidence from which the jury could find there was a conflict between the employee’s bona fide religious belief and the requirement that he use the hand scanner. The employer seemed to suggest that the employee’s religious beliefs, while sincerely held, were nonetheless mistaken, and that allowing him to scan his left hand through the system was enough to avert a religious conflict—essentially relying on the manufacturer’s interpretation of scripture. In fact, its oral argument included scripture passages “purporting to demonstrate that the Mark of the Beast can be imprinted only on the right hand.” But it was irrelevant that the employer found the employee’s belief unfounded. Nor did it matter that the scanner manufacturer—or even his pastor—did not hold his view. The jury specifically held that the employee’s religious belief was sincere, and that’s all that mattered on this point.

No undue hardship. Once the “sincerely held belief” dispute was resolved, this was an easy case. The hard part in religious accommodation cases is addressing whether a requested accommodation would pose an undue hardship on the employer, but here, the employer conceded it would pose no additional burden at all on the company. That was obvious, since the employer had readily granted an accommodation to other employees.

Constructive discharge. The jury’s finding that the employee was constructively discharged as a result of the conflict between his religious belief and his employer’s demand was also fully supported. The appeals court briefly addressed the “deliberateness” prong, but noted that such a requirement was expressly rejected by the Supreme Court in its 2016 decision in Green v. Brennan. All that was needed now, to show constructive discharge, was objective “intolerability.” And the EEOC established that here. There was substantial evidence that the employee was put in an intolerable position when his employer refused to accommodate his religious objection: requiring him to use a scanner system that he “sincerely believed would render him a follower of the Antichrist, ‘tormented with fire and brimstone.’” Consequently, the appeals court found the court below had properly denied judgment as a matter of law in favor of the employer.