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Court Upholds Jehovah's Witness Religious Discrimination Claim against Employer


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.

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