Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Theological Dispute: The Story of a Religious Discrimination Lawsuit

Beverly R. Butcher, Jr. worked as a coal miner at Robinson Run Mine, owned by Consol Energy, Inc., for 37 years until the company installed biometric hand scanners in an effort to track employee attendance.  Butcher, a lifelong, devout evangelical Christian, informed his employer that using the hand scanners would be adverse to his religious beliefs.  Specifically, Butcher feared that using the hand scanners would associate him with the Mark of the Beast.  According to his interpretation of the biblical Book of Revelation, the Mark of the Beast brands followers of the Antichrist, allowing the Antichrist to manipulate and control them.  Upon instruction from the company, Butcher provided a letter explaining his need for religious accommodation.  The company responded by providing Butcher with a letter from the scanner’s manufacturer which offered its own interpretation of the biblical scriptures.  The letter stated that the Mark of the Beast was only associated with the right hand and forehead; therefore Butcher could use the scanner with his left hand.  When the company failed to provide Butcher with an alternative to the scanner, he felt that retiring under protest was his only option.  Soon after, Butcher discovered that the company was providing alternatives to other employees for non-religious reasons, such as using a keypad.

Although the applicable collective bargaining agreement, to which Butcher’s union and the company were parties, did not require religious accommodation, the EEOC nevertheless filed suit on Butcher’s behalf.  EEOC alleged that the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for its failure to accommodate Butcher's religious beliefs and thereby constructively discharged him.  A jury returned a verdict in favor of the EEOC, finding “that Butcher had sincere religious beliefs in conflict with Consol's requirement that he use the hand scanner; that Butcher had informed Consol of this conflict; and that Consol constructively discharged Butcher for his refusal to comply with its directions.”  EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc. No. 16-1230, 2017 WL 2603976, at *4 (4th Cir. June 12, 2017).

On appeal to the 4th Circuit, the company argued that Butcher would not compromise his beliefs by using the hand scanner since the Mark of the Beast was only associated with the right hand.  In rejecting the company’s argument, the court stated, “[i]t is not Consol's place as an employer, nor ours as a court, to question the correctness or even the plausibility of Butcher's religious understandings.”  Id. at *6.  The court further determined that the company would not experience any undue hardship in accommodating Butcher since it provided employees with hand injuries an alternative to the scanners.  The court ultimately affirmed Butcher’s $436,860.74 award for front and back pay and lost benefits, along with a $150,000 award for compensatory damages.

As apparent from this case, employers should take care before dismissing an employee’s request for religious accommodation, even if they seem unusual, and should consult with an experienced labor and employment attorney.