No matter what your religion, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits an employer from discriminating against you because of your religious beliefs. But what if the employer claims that you are just using your religion as an excuse for taking days off, and that your beliefs are not really sincere?
In a case decided late last month, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals considered this issue. Fort Bend County, Texas hired Lois Davis in December 2007 as a Desktop Support Supervisor responsible for supervising about fifteen information technology ("IT") technicians. Starting in March 2011, the county prepared to install computers and network components into a new justice building. Davis's team was to help with testing to make sure all computers were set up properly. Installation was scheduled for the weekend of July 4.
In June, Davis told her supervisor she could not work that Sunday morning due to a prior "religious commitment" and she arranged for a replacement. She testified that she was "more than willing to come in after church services." The supervisor did not approve, stating it "would be grounds for a write-up or termination." After she attended her church event rather than working, the Davis was fired. She filed suit alleging religious discrimination, retaliation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The district court granted summary judgment for the county and Davis appealed only as to her Title VII claims.
At issue was whether her observance of her church's July 3rd event was pursuant to her bona fide religious beliefs. The court noted that its inquiry was limited to focusing on her motivation; whether her beliefs were, in her "own scheme of things, religious." In this regard, a belief is "religious" if it is a "sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by . . . God." Whether the belief is a "true" religious tenet is "not open to question."
Davis asserted that her bona fide belief that she was religiously compelled to attend the event was supported by her testimony that she is a devout member of the Church Without Walls. She testified that she attends at least two services every weekend, volunteers for the church, and "needed" to be there Sunday July 3. The county (and the district court) averred that "being an avid and active member of church does not elevate every activity associated with that church into a legally protectable religious practice." The lower court found that Davis's absence from work, for purposes of breaking ground for a new church and feeding the community, was due to "personal commitment, not religious conviction."
Rejecting this analysis, the appeals court noted that neither the county nor the lower court addressed whether Davis's religious belief was sincere. Instead, both improperly focused on the nature of the activity itself. A showing of sincerity did not require proof that the church event was itself a religious tenet but only that Davis sincerely believed it to be religious in her own scheme of things. With that in mind, Davis's testimony about her own sincere belief regarding her religious need to attend a special church service on a Sunday sufficiently evidenced a genuine dispute of fact on whether she held a bona fide religious belief.
The appeals court also found questions of fact on the county's defense that it could not reasonably accommodate Davis's religious observance without undue hardship. According to Davis, she only asked to be absent in the morning and promised to report to work after the church event. To the court, not only was this absence minimal under Title VII, but Davis arranged for a substitute for the hours she would be absent. She further asserted that the county allowed another employee to take time off that same weekend to attend a parade.
While the county argued that requiring one employee to substitute for another was an undue hardship, the appeals court noted that the substitute in this case volunteered. The cases upon which the county relied did not involve a ready and willing volunteer and thus did not necessarily impose the same hardship as requiring an employee to substitute. The fact that Davis lacked authority to schedule her own substitute did not change that analysis.
The takeaway: When taking part in a religious activity that interferes with your work schedule, your sincere and meaningful beliefs will be taken into account in determining whether you are entitled to an accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.