Employers are Prohibited from Imposing Religious Beliefs on Employees

An employer violates state and federal law when the employer attempts to impose its own religious beliefs on an employee and then takes action against an employee who objects to efforts to impose the employer’s religion into the workplace. A court was confronted with this situation in Mathis v. Christian Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc. (E. D. Pa. no 13-cv- 3740)(January 26, 2016)(Dubois, J.), where the employee was a heating and air conditioning installation mechanic employed by a HVAC company. The owner, president, and general manager of the employer, a “born again” Christian, testified that he named the company, Christian Heating & Air Conditioning because it was “dedicated to the Lord.” Employees drive red trucks with a dove logo, which symbolizes the Holy Spirit and the owner testified that as a born again Christian he has a duty to spread the word of God and encourage others to convert to Christianity. All employees at the workplace are required to wear an I.D. badge that displays their name and a photograph on the front, and a portion of Christian HVAC’s mission statement on the back which reads: “This Company is not only a business, it is a ministry. It is set on standards that are higher than man’s own. Our goal is to run this company in a way most pleasing to the Lord. Treating employees and customers as we would want to be treated along with running a business as if we are all part of one big family is our plan.”

In Mathis, the employee, an atheist who does not have any religious beliefs, filed claims for unlawful termination, retaliation, and denial of a reasonable accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), alleging that his employment was terminated on the basis of religious discrimination and in retaliation for the exercise of his religious beliefs as an atheist. Specifically, the employee alleged he was fired for covering the employer’s religious mission statement on the back of his employee I.D. badge. When the owner often told the employee that he should attend church; the employee would respond that he did not appreciate you talking to me like this. I don’t appreciate you trying to push your religion. The employee spoke to other employees and his immediate supervisor about what he considered to be religious harassment. The employee placed a piece of tape over the back of his I.D. badge in order to cover up the mission statement because, as an atheist, he did not agree with what he perceived to be its religious message. The employee advised other employees and possibly his supervisor that he had covered the mission statement because he did not agree with it and felt that employees should not have to wear a religious statement because of somebody else’s religion.

When the owner of the business discovered that the employee had covered the mission statement on the back of the badge he said, “You’re going to wear it or you’re done.” In response, the employee again told the owner that he disagreed with him trying to push his religion on him. Eventually, the owner said that by refusing to wear the badge as required by company policy, the employee “quit” but the employee was ordered to leave the workplace and was driven home by another employee.

Religious discrimination claims are subject to Title VII and the PHRA which provide that it is an unlawful employment practice for an employer (1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s religion. The term religion includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business. In Mathis, the employee asserted claims under three theories: (1) he was terminated due to his religious beliefs, (2) he was denied a reasonable religious accommodation, and (3) he was terminated in retaliation for requesting a reasonable religious accommodation.

To establish a prima facie failure to accommodate religion claim, an employee must show: (1) he holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement; (2) he informed the employer of the conflict; and (3) he was disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting requirement. The burden then shifts to the employer to show either (1) it made a good-faith effort to reasonably accommodate the religious belief, or (2) such an accommodation would work an undue hardship upon the employer and its business. The court found that the employee presented sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that the employee informed the employer of his religious-based objection to wearing the I.D. badge with the employer’s defendant’s mission statement on the reverse side and that a reasonable fact finder could infer that the employer failed to accommodate the employee because of the employee’s atheism. The Court also found that a reasonable trier of fact could infer that the employer terminated the employee’s employment with the motive of avoiding accommodation. The court also rejected the employer’s argument that the accommodation sought, removal of the religious message, would require the suppression of free speech and the free exercise of religion.

Religious retaliation claims require a showing of (1) protected employee activity; (2) adverse action by the employer either after or contemporaneous with the employee’s protected activity; and (3) a causal connection between the employee’s protected activity and the employer’s adverse action. In Mathis, the court held that a jury could conclude that the employee had a reasonable belief that the activities he opposed, recommendations that he attend church and the employer’s requirement that he display its religious mission statement on his I.D. badge, could be unlawful and the employer understood that the employee had a religious-based objection, which would support a finding that the employee opposed a specific employment practice on religious grounds and engaged in protected activity.

In Mathis, the court also rejected the employer’s claim that accommodating the employee would substantially burden the employer’s sincerely held religious beliefs in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which provides: Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, except government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person if it (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest. The Court found that RFRA was not an affirmative defense because the lawsuit was filed by an individual, and not the government and the RFRA only applies to lawsuits filed by the government.

For more information on religious discrimination at the workplace and Abramson Employment Law see http://www.job-discrimination.com/lawyer-attorney-2130159.html

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Filed under Employment Law, Religious Discrimination, Retaliation

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