Employer Should Have Accommodated Employee’s “Mark of the Beast” Concern
Where an employer had offered alternatives to a hand scanner to other employees for non-religious reasons, its refusal to permit an employee with religious objections the same alternatives was a violation of Title VII. Moreover, according to U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, the unreasonableness of the employee’s belief was irrelevant, as long as it was sincere.
Facts of the Case: In EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., the employer instituted a biometric hand scanner to track attendance. An employee refused to use the scanner because, according to his religious belief, the system could brand him with the “Mark of the Beast.” According to the Book of Revelations, however, the “Mark of the Beast” appears only on the right hand or forehead. Therefore, the employer insisted that the employee could use his left hand in the scanner. The employee refused to do so, believing that any use of the system could mark him, and was subsequently fired. The employer, however, had permitted other employees with hand injuries that prevented their use of the scanner to enter a personal identification number on a keypad instead.
The EEOC filed a religious discrimination suit against the employer on behalf of the employee. A jury found in the EEOC’s favor and awarded damages to the employee.
The Court’s Ruling: On appeal, the employer argued that the employee’s belief that he could not scan any part of his body was mistaken, as evidenced by scripture passages and even the fact that the employee’s pastor did not share his belief, and therefore there was no religious conflict. The 4th Circuit stated, however, that, “It is not Consol’s place as an employer, nor ours as a court, to question the correctness or plausibility of [the employee]’s religious understandings.” Rather, the only issue is whether the employee’s belief is sincerely held, and this was undisputed.
Given the sincerity of the employee’s religious belief, the 4th Circuit then turned to whether a reasonable accommodation was available. In this case, the employer had provided an accommodation to two other employees – to allow them to use a keypad to enter a PIN – for non-religious reasons. The employer conceded that this accommodation did not impose any additional costs or burdens on the company. Thus, the 4th Circuit found that this accommodation should have been provided to the employee as well.
Lessons Learned: This case emphasizes that an employee’s religious belief need not be logical or reasonable; as long as it is sincerely (even if mistakenly) held, it will be subject to protection under Title VII. In addition, if certain exceptions are made to general requirements or procedures for non-religious reasons, these same considerations must be provided for non-religious reasons.