Monday, February 2, 2015

Mark this beastly religious accommodation case for the employer

Last Monday, I wrote about a jury verdict against an employer that refused to make accommodation for an employee who objected to the use of the company’s time-keeping hand scanner for religious reasons. In response, one reader commented:

Seems to me that the law should require some sort of reasonableness requirement on the plaintiff. There’s no reason we should have to accommodate every ridiculous whack-a-doodle demand…. “The Mark of the Beast”? Seriously??? We should not have to cater to such nutjobs, and it makes a mockery of our legal/political/economic system to have to do so.

Well, captain_quirk, this one’s for you.

Last week, the 6th Circuit, in Yeager v. FirstEnergy Generation Corp., held that an employer does not have to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs if those religious beliefs conflict with a requirement of federal law.

When the plaintiff, Donald Yeager, turned 18, he disavowed his social security number. As a Fundamentalist Christian, he believed that being identified by any number, including the federally mandated social security number, was having the “Mark of the Beast.” (Amazingly, Yeager is not alone in this thinking.) FirstEnergy refused to hire Yeager because he would not provide his social security number. Yeager sued, and lost.

Every circuit to consider the issue has [held] that Title VII does not require an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs if such accommodation would violate a federal statute. Some courts have [held] that a statutory obligation is not an “employment requirement,” while others have held … that violating a federal statute would impose an “undue hardship.” These dual rationales arrive at the same, sensible conclusion: “[A]n employer is not liable under Title VII when accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs would require the employer to violate federal … law.”

The Internal Revenue Code requires employers such as FirstEnergy to collect and provide the social security numbers of their employees. In this case … FirstEnergy’s collection of Yeager’s social security number is a “requirement imposed by law” and therefore not an “employment requirement.”

Despite this highly sensible decision, I stand by my conclusion from last week’s discussion—much more often than not, requests for accommodations are not the demarcation on a battleground, but the call for a middle ground … unless the request asks you to violate a federal law, in which case all bets are off.