By Lawrence P. Schaefer |
On Tuesday, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a split (2-1) decision in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. North Memorial Health Care, No. 17-2926 (8th Cir. Nov. 13, 2018) affirmed the dismissal of a case brought by the EEOC on behalf of a Seventh Day Adventist registered nurse whose conditional job offer was revoked after she informed the hospital she could not work on Friday evenings, which was an every-other week requirement under the collective bargaining agreement. Friday represents the Sabbath under her faith, precluding her from working. In response, the hospital revoked her conditional offer of employment.
Do Accommodation Requests Based on Religious Beliefs Have to Be Granted?
Typically, yes, unless the employer can demonstrate that the request imposes an “undue hardship.” Here the schedule was set by the collective bargaining agreement, and Friday evening work was not popular and the plaintiff would not likely to be able to secure other coverage for these shifts, justifying the hospital’s denial of this requested accommodation. The Court held this requirement was as “essential job function” and the failure to be able to perform this function justified the withdrawal of the offer, which under these circumstances could not be considered an adverse action.
The Court went on to conclude that the withdrawal of a conditional job offer might support a claim for disparate treatment, but the EEOC instead sought to prosecute the case as a “retaliation” claim under Title VII’s “opposition clause” (which states that adverse action for opposing any practice that conflicts with a religious belief is unlawful). Her failure to object to the denial of this accommodation precluded this claim. Judge Grasz, in the dissent, vigorously disagreed, arguing that the request itself embodied “opposition” and this withdrawal should have been considered adverse action under established law.
Lessons to Be Learned
There are two lessons that can be learned from the decision on this religious discrimination claim.
- When a religious accommodation request has been denied, at any stage of the employment relationship, make clear that there is a continued objection to this denial, based on the same religious grounds as the initial request itself.
- Be sure when action like these are challenged in court, assert claims for both disparate treatment and retaliation.
What This Instructs Us About Religion in the Workplace
Being treated differently because of religious beliefs in the workplace is illegal under federal (and state) law. There can, however, be obstacles in successfully prosecuting these claims, where an advocate needs to “thread the needle” through numerous legal elements of the claims at issue. It is critically important for individuals who believe they are subject to religious discrimination to find an experienced advocate. Understanding bad decisions like the case described above can allow our clients to avoid the same fate.
Contact Our Religious Discrimination Lawyers Today
Schaefer Halleen lawyers have deep experience and a nuanced understanding of every aspect of proving a claim for religious discrimination. We are available for a free consultation to assist you in determining whether you have been subject to discrimination and discussing a strategy for proving the case, usually on a contingent fee basis (i.e. you pay nothing for legal fees until a favorable result is achieved by settlement or judgment).