586,860 and 3/4 reasons not to question the sincerity of an employee’s religious beliefs

biometric-scanner-1006672_640Nearly four years ago, I blogged here about a complaint that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had filed against a West Virginia coal company. The lawsuit alleged that the employer failed to accommodate an employee who requested not to use a biometric hand scanner to track time and attendance.

Why? Because of the relationship between hand-scanning technology and the Mark of the Beast and Antichrist discussed in the Book of Revelation of the New Testament.

Of course.

Who are we to judge?

At first blush, did this strike me as peculiar?

Sure. I admit not having studied up on what may be the sincerely-held religious beliefs of an Evangelical Christian.

But here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter what you or I know, accept, or believe. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964  an employer must “make reasonable accommodation for the religious observances of its employees, short of incurring an undue hardship.” Religion includes “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief.”

In plain English, if an employee has really strong religious beliefs, then the law protects them.

In EEOC v. Consol Energy (opinion here), the defendant-employer made the classic mistake of dwelling on the sincerity of plaintiff-employee’s religious belief. Now, while an employee who lacks sincerely-held religious beliefs also lacks a viable Title VII religious discrimination claim, the flip side is that an employee doesn’t have to prove that what he believes is true.

For example, the plaintiff was not required to prove that the biometric scanner actually branded him with the Mark of the Beast. So, the employer didn’t exactly help its defense by handing the plaintiff a letter written by the scanner’s manufacturer, offering assurances that the scanner cannot detect or place a mark – including the Mark of the Beast – on the body of a person.

Instead, focus on the duty to accommodate.

Rather, what mattered more was that the employer, in this case, was simultaneously providing a no-cost accommodation to other employees that allowed them to bypass the new scanner system altogether. Indeed, under Title VII, an employer has a duty to accommodate an employee’s sincerely-held religious beliefs where is will only result in minimal (or zero) cost to the employer.

So, it should come as no surprise then — as I unearth the lede — that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a jury award for $586,860.74, which does not include attorney’s fees.

So, unless your business is into big jury awards — let alone spending lots of time and money on defending lawsuits — when an employee seeks a religious accommodation at work, spend less time focus on the employee’s religious beliefs and more on what you can do to help.

 

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