Be truthful and have documentation to mitigate claims of workplace religious discrimination

by on January 2, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Employer made assertions it couldn’t back in religious discrimination lawsuit

Imagine that an employee tells you she can’t work on Saturdays because it’s against her religion. You look into it and decide that her church is actually a post office box, her claim’s frivolous, and she’s trying to dodge compulsory Saturday shifts.

Before you decide what you’d do, read how one employer refused to accommodate – and got clobbered in a workplace religious discrimination lawsuit.

I REFUSE TO WORK SATURDAYS

This workplace religious discrimination case began when production worker Catrice Brown informed her manager at Chemisco that she could not adhere to a new requirement that all employees must work Saturdays.

Brown, a member of the non-denominational Church of God International, said she believed in the literal word of the Bible and observed Sabbath on Saturday. She made this request knowing full well that her company believed it wouldn’t be competitive without obligating its employees to work Saturday shifts.

To support her request, Brown showed her supervisor a letter from her pastor explaining the church’s views and acknowledging her affiliation.

The supervisor looked into her claim. Here’s what he turned up: First, Brown had had no problem working on other high holy days during the year. Her request for Saturdays off seemed a bit selective. And that raised a warning flag.

Further inquiry showed that the pastor who wrote the note was no longer affiliated with the church. And it turned out that Brown didn’t attend regular religious services. Finally, the supervisor noted that Brown had a child out of wedlock, a lifestyle choice that was inconsistent with her professed religious beliefs.

Brown’s employer decided she was faking her faith to get out of compulsory Saturday work. The first Saturday she refused to report to work counted as a personal day. The following Saturday she was fired.

Employee sued

Brown filed an EEOC religious discrimination complaint. In it, she claimed that when she started working for Chemisco she told the HR director that she could never work on Saturdays because of her religious beliefs. He said it wouldn’t be a problem. At that time no one was required to work on Saturdays.

Hardship? What hardship?

In court, Chemisco claimed the request was unreasonable because it created undue hardship for the company. Too much production time would be lost, it argued. Further, the company feared other employees would concoct “fake” excuse notes once they heard that their coworker got out of working on Saturdays.

At the trial, attorneys for the EEOC proved that on the first Saturday in question, the company exceeded its production goals. And they pointed out that Chemisco had no evidence to support its claim that Brown’s absence on Saturdays would cause the level of hardship it claimed.

The EEOC also showed that Chemisco often received fake notes from workers trying to avoid mandatory overtime. So the argument that accommodating Brown’s request would lead to fake notes from other employees lacked credibility.

The court ruled that the employer acted with “reckless indifference” in this matter. Brown was reinstated and awarded punitive damages for workplace religious discrimination.

Employer’s deadly errors in the workplace religious discrimination lawsuit:

In this case the employer made three critical mistakes:

    1. It made assertions that it couldn’t substantiate. Production went up, not down, when the plaintiff was absent. And the company had no basis for the assertion that if it accommodated the plaintiff other employees would use religious beliefs as a phony excuse for dodging Saturday shifts. More than anything else, these false claims undermined the company’s case.
    2. It failed to take Brown’s request seriously. The company made no attempt to accommodate her religious observance by finding a replacement. Instead, it dismissed her claim. Then it dismissed her. Brown may not have attended regular church services, but she did attend a weekly Bible class. Her church was real, not just a post office box. The court looked at the evidence and found that the company had offered nothing that proved Brown’s religious convictions weren’t sincere.
    3. It engaged in character assassination and moral judgment instead of sticking to the facts and complying with the law. When and how Brown worshiped, whether she had children out of wedlock, if she chose to work on other holidays or whether her pastor was still associated with her church were irrelevant to the court. Her request was reasonable; she’d given adequate notice to HR.

This case shows the importance of sticking to the issues as well as the truth. And always being able to substantiate what you claim in a workplace religious discrimination lawsuit.
Cite: EEOC v. Chemisco, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri, No. 4:01CV00156, 5/7/02.

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