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Religious bias case overturned in favor of university worker

Workers' religious practices that prohibit them from working at certain times or on specific days sometimes conflict with employer expectations. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects employees from religion discrimination in the workplace. Employers in California and throughout the U.S. must attempt to adapt to a worker's religious needs before terminating an employee or denying potential employees a job.

In a recent court case, a university had fired a program coordinator who was unable to work between Friday and Saturday nights due to faith-based restrictions of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. School officials claimed that they unsuccessfully tried to reach a compromise that would satisfy the employee's religious requirements without causing "undue hardship" to the employer's business operations.

The fired worker sued the school for failure to accommodate her religious practices in a reasonable manner. A federal court issued a summary judgment that said bias was evident, but it also concluded that the university had fulfilled its obligation to try to resolve the dispute.

The employee took her case to an appeals court, which reversed the lower court's decision. Two members of a three-judge panel agreed last month that the university had not done enough to live up to the law. The employee had offered to extend her hours on days she was able to work. The arrangement was dissatisfactory to co-workers, who complained weekend duties were unfair.

The panel's majority found that the employee cooperated with the university but was not required to compromise her religious beliefs. Appeals court judges dismissed the lower court's dependence on a Supreme Court ruling from the late 1970s. The high court decision tied "undue hardship" to shuffling other workers' shifts to accommodate an employee's religion-based work limitations.

However, the judges felt the district court had misinterpreted the Supreme Court's findings. The university based its "undue hardship" argument on how the worker's restrictions would impact co-workers, not on how her restrictions would impact the business.

Source: Inside Higher Ed, "Appeals court sides with employee in U. of Tennessee religious bias case," Doug Lederman, July 25, 2012