Employers, it is a losing battle to debate theology with your employees who request religious accommodation. If you don’t believe me, ask Consolidated Coal Company and its parent, CONSOL Energy, which have been ordered to pay more than half a million dollars to an employee who retired rather than have his hand scanned by a biometric screener, which he believed was imprinting “the Mark of the Beast” described in the New Testament Book of Revelation. The lawsuit was brought, and won, by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Defendants have said that they will appeal.
Does that “Mark of the Beast” stuff sound crazy to you? It wasn’t crazy to the 35-year employee, Beverly Butcher.
The employer started using biometric hand screening to track attendance and hours worked. It accommodated two employees who had fingers missing from their hands, thus proving that accommodation was possible. Mr. Butcher provided a written explanation for his religious belief and offered some non-biometric ways for the company to monitor his comings and goings.
Should the judge have sent Rowan County, Kentucky, court clerk Kim Davis to jail for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses? Should her religious beliefs have been accommodated? (Note: Ms. Davis’s situation is different from that of the typical employee because she is an elected official.) Tell us what you think in the comments.
When hell freezes over No dice, said the company. Its biometric screening vendor apparently had faced this question before and had a prepared document explaining that it was not, in fact, placing “the Mark of the Beast” on employees’ hands. The document even purported to interpret Scripture.
Mr. Butcher, reasonably, elected not to take his Bible lessons from a vendor of biometric screening devices, and he retired instead. Then he filed an EEOC charge. Then the EEOC sued on his behalf. Then the company got clobbered in court.
Here Beginneth the Sermon
Many religious beliefs seem odd to those on the outside. And not just “fringe” beliefs, but even “respectable” beliefs from “recognized” faiths. As an employer, you may think that Mr. Butcher is a nut.*
*I do not share Mr. Butcher’s religious concern about biometric screening, but I do not think he is a nut.
Legally, it doesn’t matter what you as the employer think. The critical question is whether the religious belief is “sincerely held,” not whether it is correct in your opinion.
In our pluralistic society, it makes sense not to base religious accommodation decisions on whether the employer agrees with the employee, or considers the belief to be “correct.” Should a Jewish employer be able to refuse to accommodate her Seventh Day Adventist employees because she doesn’t share their beliefs? Should a lackadaisical Baptist employer be able to refuse to accommodate more-devout Baptist employees because they’re taking this stuff way too seriously? Should a Catholic supervisor be entitled to demand an “authoritative” letter from the “bishop” of an evangelical Christian employee, who has no bishop? Should an atheist employer be able to refuse to accommodate any religious need because, in the atheist’s opinion, all of that “religious” stuff is a bunch of baloney?
Of course, this would never work. So the law errs on the side of accommodation if (1) the religious belief is sincerely held (no matter how outlandish it may sound to an outsider), and (2) accommodation is not an undue hardship for the employer.
We don’t worry about who’s right and who’s wrong. The law is, if you’ll pardon the expression, agnostic.