Payroll timekeeping system violated employee’s religious rights

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an individual with respect to compensation or the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of the employee’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin [42 U.S.C. 2000e-2]. While it is hard to imagine that neutral payroll practices like keeping time and attendance records could generate charges of religious discrimination, it can happen. And, as a new case illustrates, payroll managers should take such charges seriously.

Facts of the case

For more than 35 years, Beverly R. Butcher, Jr. worked as a general inside laborer at a mine operated by Consol Energy and the Consolidation Coal Company. However, when the mining companies introduced a new biometric hand scanner to track employee time and attendance, Butcher objected. A biometric hand scanner evaluates a person’s hand geometry and stores the information to identify the same person in scans. Butcher repeatedly told mining officials that using the hand scanner would violate his sincerely held religious beliefs as an Evangelical Christian because submitting his hands for scanning would make him take on the “Mark of the Beast” and condemn him to eternal damnation (see the New Testament Book of Revelation 14:9-11). Butcher asked for an exemption from hand scanning and suggested alternatives such as manually submitting time and attendance records or using a time clock. However, the coal companies refused even though they had allowed exemptions for two employees who had missing fingers. Butcher resigned from the company and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The EEOC filed a lawsuit against the companies charging that Butcher was forced to resign when the companies violated Title VII by refusing to provide an accommodation for his religious beliefs. A U.S. district court held that the case should go before a jury to decide whether the companies violated Butcher’s religious rights (EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., No. 1:13CV215 (N.D. WV, 1-7-2015)).

Following a trial on the merits, a federal jury found that the two companies had violated federal anti-discrimination law by failing to accommodate Butcher’s religious objections to use of the biometric hand-scanning system.

Bottom line

The jury awarded Butcher $150,000 in compensatory damages, but the full price tag remains to be seen. Following the jury’s verdict, the court ordered the EEOC to file its recommendations for back pay, front pay, and other damages for determination by the court.

Take-away for employers

As EEOC attorney Debra M. Lawrence stated at the time the EEOC lawsuit was filed, “In religious accommodation cases, the standard is not whether company officials agree with or share the employee’s religious beliefs. Instead, the focus is on whether the employer can provide an accommodation without incurring an undue hardship.”

On the other hand, there are situations where accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs–sincere as they may be–may not be possible, and may not be legal.

Case in point

In a new case, a new hire claimed that his employer violated Title VII by terminating his employment because he did not provide a Social Security number on his new-employee paperwork. According to the employee, he had no SSN because he had disclaimed and disavowed it on account of his sincerely held religious belief that it would cause him to have the “Mark of the Beast.” A U.S. district court dismissed the employee’s lawsuit and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal. Pointing out that the Internal Revenue Code requires an employer to collect and provide Social Security numbers of its employees, the court found that an employer is not liable under Title VII when accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs would require the employer to violate federal law. The court also noted that every federal Circuit Court that has considered the issue has held that accommodation is not required if such accommodation would violate federal law (Yeager v. FirstEnergy Generation Corp., No 14-3693 (6th Cir., 1-28-2015)).

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