discrimination have climbed as the U.S. and
workers’ expressions of faith have grown more diverse, creating legal headaches for companies
and exposing the complexities of managing religion on the job.
The claims workers
file with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can be surprisingly wide ranging. One recent
EEOC lawsuit based on a worker claim involves a trucking company with Muslim drivers who objected to
delivering alcohol because of their Islamic faith. Another suit, filed last month, involves
biometric hand-scanning technology: An evangelical Christian employee at a mine opposed the scanning
based on a Bible passage stating that the antichrist will force people to receive his mark on their
hand or forehead.
discrimination is under reported. “Many people are
afraid that reporting it will negatively affect their careers and others are unaware of their
rights,” she says.
Part of the
surge comes from employees—Muslims, Christians, Seventh-Day Adventists and others—who
were denied requests to avoid work on Sabbath days. Conflicts also have erupted over workers’
appearance, particularly in jobs requiring uniforms, involving food preparation and in image-focused
Over the past
several years, the EEOC has filed religious-discrimination training even if they
discrimination suit alleged that Abercrombie refused to hire
an applicant who wore a hijab. The combined settlement followed separate rulings against Abercrombie
in federal court in California.
EEOC spokeswoman Kimberly
Smith-Brown said, “we are disappointed over the ruling and considering our next
discriminate based on religion,” and grants
“reasonable accommodations when they are requested, including requests to wear
The overall rise in complaints is raising
questions about how far religious liberties should extend. Hiram Sasser, litigation director for the
conservative Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas, organization that defends religious freedom, said
the law is clear: “Your religious liberty extends all the way to the point of it creating an
‘undue hardship’ in business.”
But when it comes to defining undue hardship, Mr. Sasser and
other lawyers say, the details are tricky and the burden of proof is on the employer. It is loosely
defined as resulting in more than minimal costs or burden to accommodate a worker, which includes
causing drops in efficiency or safety, burdening other employees or incurring certain expenses,
according to federal regulations and EEOC guidelines.
In May, the EEOC sued Star Transport Inc.
alleging that the trucking company fired two Muslim employees who refused to deliver alcohol. The
agency said its investigation showed the two could have been assigned to deliver other products
without undue hardship. The suit is pending. Star Transport, a closely held company in Morton, Ill.,
didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The size of a business
can matter. In its guidance, the EEOC says an employer with multiple facilities might be more able
to accommodate a worker who requests a transfer to a location with a nearby place of worship to
attend during lunch.
What is clear is that employers’ concern
about customer reactions isn’t a legal defense, though some companies mistakenly think so,
said Ms. Goldberg, of the EEOC. “It’s a 40-year-old legal precedent,” she
Some experts believe that often there must be a substantial
cost or inconvenience for a company to refuse to accommodate an employee. “If you are a
company that has a 10-person department and they all want to take off for their Sabbath, and it
would put your business under, you can tell them it’s an undue hardship,” said Mr.
Consol Energy wouldn’t comment specifically on pending litigation but said the company
respects “our employees’ rights to their sincerely held religious beliefs.” The
company said it installed the scanners at several mines to ensure accurate compensation of workers,
and makes “reasonable accommodations” when it is “appropriate.”
For 14 years, the company, based in Bentonville, Ark., had granted Mr. Nichols Sundays off
but stopped in 2009 when Wal-Mart revised its scheduling system, the EEOC said. The company started
logging him absent on the Sundays when he didn’t show up because he was unable to swap shifts
with others, the agency said.
“We refute that we disciplined him or threatened to
terminate him,” Mr. Hargrove said.
Despite a rise in complaints, the EEOC has filed fewer religion-based lawsuits
in the past few years as it pushes to resolve complaints at earlier stages and educate employers.
The agency filed nine lawsuits in fiscal 2012, which ended Sept. 30, 2012, the latest annual
statistics available. That was down from 15 the year before and 24 in fiscal 2010. The suits and the
settlements, which often require training, serve “as a teaching example for other
employers,” Ms. Goldberg said.