Court Rules Against Employer for Not Accommodating Employee’s Religious Belief of “Mark of the Beast”
Jun 28, 2017 | Written by: Share|
Recently, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a near $600,000 award against an employer for failing to accommodate an employee’s religious belief after a biometric hand scanner was installed in the workplace (EEOC v. Consol Energy). The employee claimed that the scanner would label him with the “Mark of the Beast,” contrary to his evangelical Christian religious beliefs.
Consol Energy installed the biometric hand scanner at its mine in 2012 to monitor its employees’ hours and attendance. All employees were required to “punch in” and “punch out” by putting their right hand in front of the scanner. The recognition device would identify the shape of each employee’s hand, which was associated with the employee’s personnel number for record-keeping purposes.
The grieved employee, a life-long evangelical Christian who was employed by Consol Energy for 37 years, told the employer that using the scanner would violate his religious beliefs because he feared that when his hand was scanned, he would be branded with the “Mark of the Beast.” Even though the scanner did not leave any physical mark, the employee believed that the “Mark of the Beast” would be invisibly placed on his hand and would label him as a follower of the Antichrist. He believed that such a marked person could be controlled by the Antichrist and condemned to everlasting punishment.
Consol requested a written explanation of the need for accommodation from the employee’s pastor. The pastor’s letter affirmed the employee’s devotion to his religion, but did not express a shared concern about the hand scanner. The employee also provided his own letter of explanation, stating that he objected to scanning either his left or right hand but was willing to either punch a time clock (as he had always done) or notify a supervisor of his arrivals and departures.
Consol advised the employee that the scanner was not capable of placing any marks on a person’s body. It also claimed that, based on its Biblical research, the “Mark of the Beast” is associated only with the right hand, and that scanning the left hand should not be a conflict.
Notably, Consol allowed two other employees with hand injuries to enter their personnel numbers on a keypad attached to the system, instead of requiring them to use the scanner. In an email pertaining to this medical accommodation, a company representative wrote “Let’s make our religious objector use his left hand.”
Rather than scan his left hand, the employee resigned.
The Verdict and Appeal
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Consol, alleging that the employer did not accommodate the employee’s religious belief in violation of Title VII, a federal anti-discrimination law. A jury agreed with the EEOC, finding that the employee had a sincere religious belief in conflict with a work requirement, that he had informed the employer of the conflict, and that the employer discriminated against the employee for his refusal to use the scanner. The jury awarded $150,000 in emotional distress damages, and the District Court added over $426,000 for front and back pay and lost benefits.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment and specifically took issue with the fact that the employee was told he was mistaken in his religious beliefs insofar as the employer had concluded that there was no religious conflict because the “Mark of the Beast” would require a physical mark on the right hand only. The Court held, “It is not Consol’s place as an employer, nor ours as a court, to question the correctness or even the plausibility of [the employee’s] religious understandings.”
Importantly, the Court noted that this was not a case where the employer could show that an accommodation would create an undue hardship, which is required when such a request is rejected by an employer. In this case, the employer had accommodated two other employees by offering an alternative to the hand scanner, and admitted incurring no additional burdens or unreasonable costs.
Based on the Court’s ruling in this case, there are several key points for employers to keep in mind.
When it comes to religious beliefs, the employer should not judge the genuineness of the employee’s belief. Even if an employee’s personal religious beliefs vary from others in the same religion, that does not indicate that the employee’s beliefs are not genuine. At the very least, in the face of questions as to the employee’s motivation, an employer should always consult with legal counsel before making any decisions.
Additionally, in determining whether a requested accommodation is reasonable or unreasonable, the employer should make every effort to implement that determination consistently for all employees.
To avoid mishandling requests for religious or other workplace accommodations and the resulting legal exposure, it is always best to seek guidance from an attorney with experience in employment law.
Leslie A. Parikh, Esq., is a partner with Gebhardt & Kiefer, PC. She practices primarily in the areas of employment law, civil rights litigation, municipal law, insurance defense, and the representation of public entities in both State and Federal Court. Contact Ms. Parikh at 908-735-5161 or via email.
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