What is a “religious belief”? Can an employer question the sincerity of an employee’s alleged religious beliefs? The U.S. Supreme Court previously defined “religious belief” as a belief that is “religious” in the employee’s own scheme of things and sincerely held by the employee.
In August of 2014, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal trial court’s ruling granting summary judgment on discrimination claims filed against Fort Bend County, Texas. The former employee, who was a Desktop Support Supervisor, filed suit claiming that the County fired her because she took off work to attend a ground breaking ceremony at her church, which she considered to be a religious event that she needed to attend.
The Fifth Circuit analyzed the Title VII claim for failure to accommodate religious beliefs under a burden-shifting framework, meaning that the employee must first establish a prima facie case of religious discrimination, then the burden shifts to the defendant to demonstrate that it reasonably accommodated the employee or that it was unable to accommodate the employee’s needs without undue hardship.
The Fifth Circuit held that the Plaintiff presented evidence sufficient to survive summary judgment that she may have been terminated because she attended a church function. The Fifth Circuit ruled that the Plaintiff did not have to show that the church event was itself a “true religious tenet,” but only that the Plaintiff “sincerely believed it to be religious in her own scheme of things,” resorting to the earlier terminology from the Supreme Court. Thus, the Court held that fact issues existed on both steps of the religious observance framework.
The groundbreaking ceremony for her church took place on a weekend, but the county had requested all employees to work that weekend to assist with setting up new computers at the new Fort Bend County Justice Center. She informed her supervisor that she needed to attend the church function, but that she would come in after the event, which is what she did. However, her supervisor did not approve her absence, and told her if she failed to come in and work the full day she would be subject to be written up or terminated. she However, the employee attended the church ceremony, and told her county supervisor she would come in after the church event was over. The county subsequently terminated her.
The trial court ruled that “being an avid and active member of a church does not elevate every activity associated with that church into a legally protectable religious practice.” The trial court found that the employee had missed work because of a personal, not religious commitment.
The Fifth Circuit, 2-1, reversed the trial court, holding that the employee believed that attendance at the event was part of her religious beliefs.
Monday, the Supreme Court declined to review the decision. Thus, the case will be remanded for trial to a jury.
As a practice pointer, it is worth noting that if the employer could have accommodated the religious belief without imposing an undue burden on the employer, it should have done so. The Supreme Court has defined “undue hardship” as expending more than a minimal effort or expense.
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