Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Thumbprints, the Anti-Christ, and Accommodating Unconventional Religious Beliefs

What should employers do when they have an employee with religious beliefs that are unconventional, and such beliefs interfere with the employee’s job performance? Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from firing employees based on their religion, which has led the courts to conclude that the law requires employers to accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs. But what if those beliefs seem unusual? How far must an employer go to accommodate such unusual beliefs? A court in West Virginia recently considered such an issue. 

In that case, (which you can access by clicking here), a coal miner refused to use a machine which scanned his thumbprint when the employee arrived and departed from work. The employee, a devout evangelical Christian, believed that doing so would create the “Mark of the Beast,” which is referred to in the biblical Book of Revelation as the mark of followers of the Anti-Christ. Such a mark would, the employee believed, prevent him from entering heaven and would brandish him a follower of the Anti-Christ. 

Although the employee had worked for his employer for 37 years and by all accounts performed solid work, his employer refused to allow him a religious accommodation not to use the thumbprint scanner. In fact, his employer said that if he used his left thumbprint, he would not suffer the Mark of the Beast, as the scriptures say that this mark is only placed on an individual’s right hand.

The employee found this explanation unconvincing, and forced to choose between following his religious beliefs and his employer’s insistence that he use the thumb print scanner, chose to follow his religious beliefs and quit his job. He filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which then filed a lawsuit against his employer, claiming that it fired him instead of accommodating his religious beliefs, in violation of Title VII. A jury agreed, finding his employer to be in violation of Title VII, and awarded the employee lost wages and front and back pay. Evidence that the employer had provided accommodations to other employees who had suffered hand injuries, and therefore were unable to scan their thumbs, was used as proof that the employer discriminated against the employee based on his religious beliefs. 

The appellate court affirmed the decision to award the employee damages. The court noted that the employer’s argument that the employee’s religious beliefs were mistaken was irrelevant, as Title VII does not require an employer to examine the correctness of an employee’s religious beliefs, but only whether they are sincerely held. 

There are a number of takeaways for employers from this case. First, employers need to provide their employees with religious accommodations unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship on the employee.” So, the employer in this case was required to provide the employee with the same accommodation it provided to the two disabled employees who could not use the thumb scanner, as such an accommodation did not create an undue hardship. 

Second, an employer should not question the validity of an employee’s religious beliefs, only their sincerity. In this case, the employer engaged in a theological debate with the employee, seemingly rejecting his contention that the thumb scanner would impose upon him the Mark of the Beast. This was a mistake. Once the employee made it clear that he sincerely believed the use of the thumb scanner would cause a religious problem it should have accommodated this belief. 

Employers should have policies in place to deal with religious objections lodged by employees. Contact me for help creating such a policy.