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A Religious Accommodation Decision that Makes Sense

December 28, 2016 Labor & Employment Blog Religious Discrimination

The best line I have read in a religious accommodation case in the last two years is from a decision out of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana New Albany Division earlier this month: “Title VII is not a license for employees to perform only those duties that meet their private approval.” When I read this, I wanted to pump my arm in the air like Judd Nelson’s character at the end of The Breakfast Club. In all seriousness, employers are now tip-toeing around the workplace, in part, as a result of the proliferation of reasonable accommodation cases and the often absurd outcomes that result from the legal decisions. For instance, in the Supreme Court’s 2015 Abercrombie decision, the Court said that even if the employee did not request an accommodation, the employer is required to know that an accommodation is necessary. True, that in the context of the facts of Abercrombie, the decision made some sense (the plaintiff, in that case, wore a hijab to the interview), but its application to other factual scenarios can border on the absurd and is tantamount to a “mind-reading” requirement.

I do digress. Back to the recent decision. The S.D. of Indiana’s decision rejecting a religious accommodation claim made by a former employee terminated for insubordination when she refused to perform essential functions of her job finally added some degree of common sense to the avalanche of religious accommodation cases. In its decision, the S.D. of Indiana found that in order to meet her initial burden of proof, the former employee had to prove that a sincerely held religious belief conflicted with her duties. The case before the court involved a former employee that was terminated from her position as a deputy clerk when she refused to process forms allowing same-sex couples to marry. The court found that the duties of the deputy clerk position were ministerial duties consisting of certifying that the information on the application is accurate and that, under state law, the applicants are qualified to marry. The court found that although the former employee had a sincerely held religious belief, the purely administrative duties relating to the processing of marriage licenses did not conflict with her religious beliefs, as the processing of the forms was not forcing her to make a showing of religious or moral approval of the marriage. The court pointed out that she was not being forced to attend ceremonies, say congratulations, offer a blessing, or pray with the couples. The court opined that the employee’s subjective perception of a conflict between her beliefs and her duties “is not, in and of itself, conclusive.” The court went on to opine that to allow the employee’s subjective perception to dictate whether there is a conflict would result in the requirement having no meaning at all. Let’s call this a win for the Gipper (at least for now).

If you would like to learn more about religious accommodation in the workplace, you can read about it here.

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes