Most employers recognize that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace and requires private employers to reasonably accommodate an applicant’s or employee’s religious practices and beliefs, subject to limited exceptions. Private employers with 15 or more employees are covered under Title VII. Many state laws also prohibit religious discrimination by private employers, and typically cover employers with fewer than 15 employees.
In a decision issued August 26, 2014, in Davis v. Fort Bend County, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned a district court’s grant of summary judgment to the employer and resurrected the plaintiff’s claim of religious discrimination because the employer and the district court impermissibly focused on the religious nature of the employee’s activity rather than limiting their inquiries solely to the sincerity of the employee’s belief in the religious nature of the activity.
By way of background, the plaintiff worked in a supervisory capacity for Fort Bend County in its IT department. In 2011, as a result of an important technological installation, IT employees were informed they would be required to work during the Fourth of July weekend. One week before that holiday weekend, the plaintiff explained that she would not be able to work on July 3 due to a prior religious commitment involving a community event at her church.
In response, management refused to approve the plaintiff’s absence and indicated that if she did not work that day she could be terminated. The plaintiff had offered to come to work later that day (after the church’s community event) and even arranged for a replacement to work during her absence. Because the plaintiff attended the event instead of working on the morning of July 3, she was summarily discharged from employment. She thereafter commenced legal action alleging religious discrimination in violation of Title VII, retaliation in violation of Title VII, and intentional infliction of emotional distress under state law.
The district court granted Fort Bend County’s motion for summary judgment dismissing all of the plaintiff’s claims, reasoning that not every activity associated with a church gains legal protection as a religious practice under Title VII and that the plaintiff’s absence from work was for a personal, rather than a religious, commitment under the facts presented.
The plaintiff appealed and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s dismissal of her Title VII religious discrimination claim. The Fifth Circuit noted that employers must grant reasonable accommodations with respect to an employee’s religious observances, although they are not required to do so if a suggested accommodation would create undue hardship to the employer.
The Fifth Circuit ruled that, to establish a case of religious discrimination under Title VII, a plaintiff must merely present evidence that she held a bona fide religious belief, her belief conflicted with an employment requirement, the employer was informed of the plaintiff’s belief, and the plaintiff suffered an adverse action for failure to comply with the employment requirement. The court reasoned that the main issue with respect to the religious discrimination claim was whether the plaintiff held a bona fide religious belief. As a result, when examining her religious belief and any need for an accommodation to same, the employer may not question whether the employee’s belief is actually central to a religion and may only inquire about the individual’s motivation and whether the belief is truly religious to that individual. This subjective test of sincerity of the plaintiff’s religious belief created a question of fact in the Fort Bend County case (as well as in most other cases) which is centered around the credibility of the plaintiff.
If this decision is not reversed en banc or by the U.S. Supreme Court, employers in the Fifth Circuit (and risk-averse employers outside of the Fifth Circuit) will need to forego inquiring into the religious nature of an employee’s request for a religious accommodation and instead focus on the sincerity of the employee’s religious belief whenever that belief conflicts with a condition of employment. Affected employers must thereafter seek to reasonably accommodate any sincerely held religious belief unless the suggested accommodation would create undue hardship.
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