On August 20, 2015, in Nobach v. Woodland Village Nursing Center, Inc., the Fifth Circuit held that terminating an employee for a refusal to pray the Rosary does not violate Title VII when there is no evidence that the employer was aware of the employee’s conflicting religious beliefs. In light of this determination, the court decided that no reasonable jury could have found that the employer could have discriminated against the employee because of her religion and therefore reversed (for a second time!) the denial of the employer’s motion for judgment as a matter of law.
This case arose when the employee, an activities aide at a nursing home, was informed by a Certified Nurse Assistant (“CNA”) (a position with no supervisory authority of the employee) that a resident wanted someone to read her the Rosary. Despite the fact that reading the Rosary was a “regularly scheduled activity” when requested by a resident, the employee refused, claiming that it was against her religion. The employee, however, did not inform the CNA or nursing home management that she was a “disfellowshipped Jehovah’s Witness” who did not believe in religious symbolism or repetitive prayers, which are intrinsic in the saying of the Rosary.
When the resident later complained that no one had prayed the Rosary with her, the employee’s supervisor decided to terminate the employee. At the termination meeting, the supervisor informed the employee that she was being terminated for her failure to pray the Rosary. Though the employee had been written up before for unrelated incidents, the supervisor stated: “I don’t care if it’s your fifth write-up or not. I would have fired you for this instance alone.” After this statement, the employee informed her supervisor that praying the Rosary was against her religion, claiming: “Well, I can’t pray the Rosary. It’s against my religion.” The employer’s response was: “I don’t care if it is against your religion or not. If you don’t do it, it’s insubordination.”
Based upon her termination and the surrounding conversation, the employee sued, claiming the nursing home violated Title VII by firing her for her religious beliefs. The jury agreed, but in the first appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that there was insufficient evidence the employee was fired for her religious beliefs. The Supreme Court, however, vacated this appeal and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of its decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie and Fitch Stores.
In the second and present appeal, the Fifth Circuit held that “the question is not what the employer knew about the employee’s religious beliefs” but that “the critical question is what motivated the employer’s employment decision.” Applying this standard, the Fifth Circuit found no evidence that the employer intentionally discriminated against the employee for her religious beliefs, but rather the employee was merely terminated for her refusal to perform a task. The court did opine, however, that had the employee presented any evidence that the employer “knew, suspected, or reasonably should have known the cause for her refusing this task [praying the Rosary] was her conflicting religious belief – and that [the employer] was motivated by this knowledge or suspicion,” the jury would have had sufficient evidence to support a religious discrimination claim under Title VII.
The holding of this employer-friendly verdict may be fairly construed as follows: an employer generally has the right to terminate an employee for refusal to perform a religious activity but may not terminate the employee when the employer is aware that the refusal is predicated on a conflicting religious belief.
In light of this, employers should pay careful attention to their employees’ declarations of religious beliefs and ensure that such beliefs do not motivate any employment decisions. At the same time, however, under the Fifth Circuit’s holding, an employee may not seek to use religious beliefs as a post-hoc rationalization of their refusal to perform a required task.
In spite of the employer-friendly interpretation, proceed cautiously when employment actions involve religion. As the EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores decision continues to be interpreted and applied amongst the circuits, it is unclear if the other circuits will follow the Fifth Circuit’s interpretation.