“Reasonable accommodation” is responsible for more law suits than it saves, it often appears to us. What is reasonable, and who has the authority to judge the accommodation is an acute issue when it comes to religion? Such is the question in a recent West Virginia situation that seems to have gotten out of hand. From the November issue of the Florida Employment Law Letter —
New Technology Triggers Unique Claim of Religious Discrimination
By Andrew L. Rodman, Esq., Miami Office, Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson, P.A.
Technological advances have changed the world – and the workplace. Unfortunately for you, some of those technological advances have created a host of potential legal pitfalls and associated legal claims. Most recently, this clash between technology and the law reared its head in a federal court in West Virginia, where the EEOC filed a lawsuit on behalf of Beverly R. Butcher, Jr., alleging that Butcher’s employer failed to accommodate his religious beliefs by requiring him to use the newly implemented electronic timekeeping system. The case is EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc. and Consolidation Coal Company.
Biometric Scanning Clashes with Religious Beliefs
The EEOC claimed that Consol Energy, Inc. and Consolidation Coal Company installed an electronic time and attendance tracking system that required employees to sign-in using a biometric hand scanner. The hand scanner created and stored electronic information about each employee’s “hand geometry” so that employees could be identified upon each sign-in. Butcher, an Evangelical Christian, alleges that he is not permitted to submit either of his hands for scanning because of his religious belief about the connection between the scanning technology and Biblical references to the Mark of the Beast and the Antichrist.
Butcher’s employer allegedly denied his request for a religious exemption from use of the biometric hand scanner, even though he offered to submit time and attendance manually (as he had done previously), and even though exemptions allegedly were provided to at least two other employees who could not scan due to missing fingers. While Butcher’s employer allegedly offered to allow Butcher to subject his left hand to scanning (based on the employer’s understanding that the Mark of the Beast pertained only to the right hand), Butcher alleges that his religious beliefs prohibit scanning of either hand. Butcher ultimately resigned his employment involuntarily.
Religious Accommodation under Title VII and Florida Law
Will Butcher prevail on his religious discrimination claim? It’s certainly too early to tell, but Title VII, as part of its prohibition against religious discrimination, expressly requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs. The Florida Civil Rights Act, which is patterned after Title VII, has been interpreted as including the same reasonable accommodation requirement, even though the law does not expressly include reasonable accommodation language.
So, assuming that Butcher sincerely and genuinely believed that the tenets of Evangelical Christianity prohibited hand scanning, his Title VII claim likely will turn on whether his employer satisfied its reasonable accommodation obligation.
How far does an employer have to go to accommodate a sincerely held religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement? Title VII does not define the phrase “reasonably accommodate,” so each case must be analyzed on its own facts. Courts in Florida, however, have provided some guidance. For example, an accommodation is reasonable if it eliminates the conflict between religion and the workplace, even if the accommodation is not the accommodation proposed or preferred by the employee. Also, an employer generally is not required to provide an accommodation that would require the hiring of additional staff to comply with an employee’s religious-based scheduling requests, that would interfere with seniority system rights, or that otherwise would interfere with the legitimate rights and expectations of employees not seeking religious accommodations. The reasonable accommodation obligation generally does not require an employer to favor the employee seeking the accommodation to the detriment of other employees.
Also, an employer is not required to provide an accommodation that would present an “undue hardship” on the employer’s business. Unlike the more demanding “undue hardship” defense under the Americans With Disabilities Act, a religious accommodation may present an “undue hardship” under Title VII if it requires an employer to bear more than a de minimis (or minimal) cost, either financially or in business operations. Courts in Florida have held that an employer must present evidence to support a claim of undue hardship; the employer cannot rely on mere speculation and unsupported hypothetical estimates.
Religious accommodation requests are not limited to scheduling issues (such as requests to refrain from work on Friday night, Saturday, or Sunday due to religious observances) and dress issues (such as requests to wear head coverings, religious garments, or even piercings or tattoos). Every once and a while you may be presented with a request for an accommodation concerning a religion or a religious belief about which you are unaware. When that happens, do not jump to the conclusion that the religion is “made up” or that the religious belief is not sincerely held. Rather, take some time to consider the requested accommodation. If necessary, speak to the employee to get a better understanding of the issue. Even jump on the computer to do some research if you are faced with a religion or religious belief about which you are unaware (and perhaps even question exists).
Ultimately, addressing a conflict between a religious belief and the workplace requirement may be an “easy fix,” such as a scheduling change that does not impact the business or other employees. If, however, you do not believe you can accommodate an employee, or if you believe that doing so would create an undue hardship, then it would be prudent to consult with your employment law counsel before denying the accommodation request.