We all know that Title VII prohibits religiously based discrimination. So at first glance it seems an odd result to hear that the Fifth Circuit recently ruled that a nursing home did not violate Title VII when it terminated an aide for refusing to help an elderly resident pray the Rosary, a Catholic prayer practice. But when we dig a little deeper, the case highlights an element of a Title VII claim that is unique among religion claims—namely, a plaintiff must prove that the decision maker knew about a specific religious objection before termination.
The employee in this case (we’ll call her Kelsey) worked as an aide at a Nursing facility in southern Mississippi. She helped the residents with their daily tasks, such as moving them around the facilities. She was also a former Jehovah’s Witness. And although no longer a practicing member, she still held many of the faith’s tenets. A nursing assistant—not Kelsey’s supervisor—instructed her to help a resident who requested that a Rosary be read to her. Kelsey refused, and stated that she could not participate in a Rosary because it was against her religion. She did not explain to the nursing assistant what her religion was, nor how the Rosary conflicted with it.
The resident complained to management that nobody had read her the Rosary. After a brief investigation, management fired Kelsey (and there may have been some evidence that this was not Kelsey’s first rules violation). Kelsey’s head supervisor called Kelsey into her office and told her that she was fired for insubordination for refusing to read the Rosary to the resident. Kelsey said that the Rosary violated her religious beliefs, but the supervisor terminated her anyway. It was undisputed that the supervisor did not know that the Rosary violated Kelsey’s religious beliefs until after she fired her.
Kelsey filed suit in the Southern District of Mississippi, alleging that her employer violated Title VII by terminating her based on her religion. A jury awarded nearly $70,000 in damages, and the trial court denied the Nursing facility’s motion for judgment as a matter of law.
On appeal to the Fifth Circuit, the Nursing facility argued that the district court should have dismissed the case because Kelsey had no evidence that the Nursing facility knew about her religious objection before it fired her. The court agreed. “[W]e simply cannot find evidence that Kelsey ever advised anyone involved in her discharge that praying the Rosary was against her religion.” Without more, a reasonable jury had no legally sufficient reason to rule against the nursing home.
This was a close call. The court acknowledged that if Kelsey had presented any evidence suggesting that a decision maker knew that her objection was religiously based, then the jury would have been entitled to find for her. You can imagine the many ways the case could have come out differently: if Kelsey had voiced her religious beliefs in the past, if the nursing assistant had let the supervisor know that her objection was religious, or even if Kelsey had routinely requested time off for religious holidays. But in this case, Kelsey had nothing to point to that suggested that the decision maker knew her objection was religious prior to the decision to terminate her employment.
Even though the Nursing facility prevailed, the case should send employers a cautionary message. Not every court in the country might rule this way. Many judges could infer that an objection to reading the Rosary is de facto an objection based on religion, and rule that employees are not required to tell their bosses about their specific religious beliefs before claiming Title VII’s protections.
Employers are well within their rights to discipline or even fire employees for insubordination. But, we should continue to use common sense when defining just what constitutes insubordination. The decision provides all the more reason to stay out of employees’ private business, like what their religious beliefs may or may not be. If some management is aware of an employee’s religious beliefs, there need to be mechanisms in place so that that information is not shared with decision makers to avoid religious discrimination claims.