When the duties of your job conflict with your religious beliefs, your
employer cannot fire you as a result of your convictions, and has the
affirmative duty under the law to adjust the job requirements so that
they do not conflict with your religion. A
case decided late last month illustrates this basic rule.
Sharon Shepard, a Jehovah's Witness, worked for a nonprofit corporation,
a ministry of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, which provided holistic
and therapeutic resident care for young women placed by the court. Before
she began working there, the company implemented the "Sanctuary Model
of Trauma Informed Care," which provides a "whole culture approach"
for creating or changing an organizational culture. "Community meetings,"
an important part of the Sanctuary Model, were held on a near daily basis
and were intended to involve staff and organizational leaders in establishing
the "whole organization" implementation of the Sanctuary Model.
Although Shepard initially attended the community meetings, she objected
when the company began requiring that employees state a goal at the meetings
related to one of the seven commitments regarded as pillars of the Sanctuary
Model: nonviolence, emotional intelligence; social learning, open communication,
democracy, social responsibility, and growth and change. Once these commitments
became part of the meetings, she felt that the Sanctuary Model contained
too much anti-Christian content. Further, she asserted, she did not feel
comfortable with the Model because it relied on governments and other
religions and was an organized set of beliefs and ideals that differed
from the Bible.
Shepard went to the company's HR manager to complain, and was assured
that she would no longer have to attend the meetings. However, several
months later, the company's associate director raised a concern about
her non-attendance. Shepard then met with her supervisor, and informed
her that she was a Jehovah's Witness and that the meetings and Sanctuary
Model conflicted with her beliefs. The supervisor told her the meetings
were a requirement of the job, and told her to leave immediately, or to
stay until a replacement was hired. Shepard sued the company asserting
claims for religious discrimination and failure to accommodate.
The employer tried to have the case dismissed, but failed. The court found
that Shepard stated a prima facie case of disparate treatment based on
her religion. It also noted that he employer attempted to challenge the
sincerity of her religious beliefs by drawing it into a discussion of
whether refusing to attend community meetings and state a goal related
to the seven commitments was a tenet of Jehovah's Witnesses belief.
This, the court stated, was not permissible. Nor could the employer argue
that the employee was misreading the tenets of her Jehovah's Witness
faith, because "Courts are not arbiters of scriptural interpretation."
The employer argued that requiring employees to attend community meetings
and state goals relating to the seven commitments could not, as Shepard
contended, have conflicted with her religious belief about "the end
of days" because the goals and "change" discussed at the
meetings did not have anything to do with these cosmic questions. This
reasoning, however, was flawed because it measured the religious validity
of Shepard's objection to the community meetings based on the employer's
"scheme of things" rather than hers, the court explained, finding
that she stated a prima facie case of failure to accommodate.
Observing that every employer would argue that allowing even one employee
to be excused from an organization-wide practice would undermine that
practice as a whole and might encourage other employees to seek exemptions,
the court pointed out that Title VII nevertheless requires reasonable
accommodation of employees' sincerely held religious beliefs unless
an employer demonstrates that such accommodation would subject it to an
undue hardship. Because the employer's argument here would "swallow
the rule of religious accommodation," it was rejected.
The takeaway: Once again the courts have held that employers have a duty
under Title VII to accommodate their employee's religious convictions,
and will not be an interpreter of the validity of those convictions.