Failure to Accommodate Sincere Religious Beliefs Can Be a Costly Mistake for Employers

June 20, 2017 - Denny P. Major

Last week, in the case of EEOC v. Consul Energy, Inc., the Fourth Circuit affirmed a $586,860 judgment for a coal miner who claimed that his employer (Consul Energy) failed to accommodate his religious beliefs and constructively discharged him when it forced him to use a biometric hand scanner to monitor work hours. 

The employee alleged that the use of the hand-scanning system would cause him to be marked with the Mark of the Beast, which, according to his understanding of the Bible’s Book of Revelation, would associate him with the Antichrist and allow the Antichrist to manipulate him. The biometric hand scanner required employees to scan their hand, and the shape of the hand was linked to the employee’s unique employee number. It did not detect or place a mark on the hand. The employer was unwilling to allow the employee to check in and out by other means, even though two other employees were allowed to check in by entering their employee numbers on a keypad because they had hand injuries. The employee retired under protest. At trial, the jury returned a verdict of $150,000 in compensatory damages, and the court subsequently awarded $436,860 in front and back pay and lost benefits.

On appeal, the employer primarily argued that it did not violate Title VII’s reasonable accommodation requirement because there was no conflict between the employee’s bona fide religious beliefs and the requirement that the employee use the hand scanner system. In essence, the employer’s argument was that the employee misunderstood the Book of Revelation. It argued that the Mark of the Beast is a physical mark that would be placed upon the right hand. According to the employer, there could be no conflict because the scanner system did not give a physical mark on his hand, and, moreover, it was allowing the employee to scan his left hand rather than his right hand. The employer even presented evidence that the employee’s pastor disagreed the employee’s view of a connection between the scanner and the Mark of the Beast.

The Fourth Circuit held that the employee’s argument “is beside the point” because it is not the employer’s place “to question the correctness or even the plausibility of [the employee’s] religious understandings.” All that matters is that the employee sincerely holds the beliefs, and that such beliefs conflict with an employment requirement.

The employer also argued there was no adverse employment action because the employee voluntarily quit. The Fourth Circuit, following recent Supreme Court cases, made it clear that an employee asserting a constructive discharge claim does not need to show “deliberateness” or “intent”- i.e., that the employer denied the accommodation to provoke the employee’s retirement. Rather, the question is whether the employer’s discriminatory conduct subjected the employee to circumstances that were so intolerable that a reasonable person would quit. The Fourth Circuit found substantial evidence that the employee was in an intolerable position by the employer’s refusal to accommodate the employee by requiring him to use a scanner system that he believed would render him a follower of the Antichrist.

This case is an excellent reminder that sincere religious beliefs do not have to identify with the beliefs of a particular sect, even where the employee appears to be a member of the sect. This case is also a reminder that the failure to appreciate the distinction between sincere religious beliefs and what are often viewed as legitimate religious beliefs can be a costly misunderstanding.

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