Religious discrimination in the workplace or business necessity?

by on January 7, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Religious discrimination at work and Sabbath Observance

No sooner had Barbara and Charles Blum resigned their jobs as insurance agents for Wynnewood Risk than they had a surprise visit from Phil Lawrence, a Wynnewood VP.

“I want you to reconsider,” Phil implored. “Please tell me how we can make this work.”

“Nothing doing,” said Charles. “Ten years we worked for this company. Ten years! All of a sudden some hotshot in Hartford decides every office has to stay open Saturdays. Very well. Barbara and I are finished with your company.”

As Orthodox Jews, Barbara and Charles were forbidden to work on the Jewish Sabbath – from sundown Friday through sundown Saturday. But the new policy, which was to take effect in about two months, was explicit: All sales offices were to remain open on Saturdays, with no exceptions.

Replacement help

When the Blums heard about the new policy, they complained to headquarters, which repeated that there would be no exceptions. But a few days later, senior management offered the Blums an alternative: the couple could hire part-time replacements to work Saturdays.

Unfortunately, the allowance that management offered to cover the part-timers was too small. The Blums would face financial hardship under those conditions. So they quit.

When Phil visited, he made another offer: They could keep the office open Sundays instead of Saturdays.

“Too late,” said Barbara. “We resign. That was no way to treat people who gave 10 years to this company. Our religious practice was no secret. You forced us to choose between abandoning our beliefs and hiring part-time help with not enough money to pay them!”

The Blums sued the company for religious discrimination in the workplace.

Did they win their lawsuit?

The decision

No. The Blums lost.

In reaching its decision, the court noted that forcing employees to choose between violating their Sabbath or having to spend their own money hiring outside staff created a “conflict.”

But it wasn’t religious discrimination in the workplace, said the court. The Blums were neither fired nor were they disciplined for their failure to comply with a company policy that conflicted with their religious observance.

Alternatives were reasonable according to religious discrimination law

The court found that the Blums hadn’t been subjected to a hostile work environment either. The new policy conflicted with their religious beliefs, but it didn’t single them out.

The subsidy the employer offered for the Saturday-only employees wasn’t enough. But the employer did come up with another alternative – Sunday office hours. However, by the time that alternative was offered, the Blums had already quit.

The court said that the couple simply didn’t give their employer enough time to work out a solution.

Finally, the court said that since the Blums quit 53 days before the new policy was to go into effect, they hadn’t been affected by it. The Blums had not met the criteria for a religious discrimination claim under Title VII.

If only the employer had shown some sensitivity earlier, or had been quicker to offer the Sunday alternative, it might not have lost two valued employees and faced a time-consuming religious discrimination lawsuit.

Cite: Goldmeier v. Allstate Insurance Company, U.S. Court of Appeals, 6th Circuit, No. 01-3888, 7/24/03. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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