Thursday, July 8, 2021

Religious accommodations shouldn’t flummox employers, yet they still do

I've shared this story before, but it's worth re-sharing because (a) it's been a few years and I have many new readers, (b) it's really good, and (c) because it's super relevant to today's lesson.

I spent a high-school summer working on a warehouse loading dock. One of my co-workers was named Harland Jester. (I provide his name because he named his son "Court," and this context provides the necessary color for the rest of the story.)

Four days into my summer job, a co-worker pulled me aside and asked, "Did Harland get a hold of you yet?"

"Uh, no. Why?"

"Just wait."

Sure enough, that afternoon, Harland filled me in on his interesting worldview. For example, he believed—
  • The Freemasons ran the world from a secret office on the 36th floor of Rockefeller Center;
  • Aliens had colonized Israel and would soon cause the apocalypse; and
  • Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler by making a pact with the devil.

He even handed me literature to support his beliefs.

This warehouse was full of colorful characters in addition to Harland, many of whom enjoyed a good practical joke.

One such joke, played at Harland's expense, involved a sketch on Harland's work desk of Lee Iacocca shaking hands with Satan, with Lee exclaiming, "Harland, we're watching you!"

Harland did not find the joke nearly as funny as the rest of us, and quickly complained to management. For its part, the company took the path of least resistance, replacing the desk with a spare and requiring everyone to attend sensitivity training.

Compare the reaction of my former employer to the employer in this lawsuit the EEOC recently filed.
AscensionPoint Recovery Services, LLC (APRS), a Minnesota-based estate and probate debt recovery company that manages decedent debt recovery for creditors, violated federal law when it fired a Christian employee instead of accommodating his request not to be fingerprinted due to his religion, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit filed today.

The EEOC's pre-suit investigation revealed that APRS had requested that its employees be finger-printed as a result of a background check requirement of one of its clients. Shortly after the Christian employee informed APRS that having his fingerprints captured was contrary to his religious practices, APRS fired him at their St. Louis Park, Minn., office. APRS did so without asking the client whether an exemption was available as a religious accommodation, and despite the fact that alternatives to fingerprinting are available.

What else could APRS have done instead of fingerprinting that employee for his necessary background check? It could have collected his birthdate, social security number, and other PII, for starters. 

Most often, the path of least resistance makes sense for your employees.

Is it silly for an employee to refuse to be fingerprinted? Yup, it is. Or at least I, and most of you, think so.

Was that employer within its rights to fire that employee over his religious accommodation request, no matter how out-there his views may appear? Probably not.

Regardless of the law, could those employers have employed a little common sense and dignity to avoid the high cost of litigation (in legal fees, bad publicity, and a likely settlement or judgment) simply by exempting the employees from the fingerprinting requirement and find a background-screening alternative? Absolutely.

Even if that employer lawfully fired its religious employee—and Title VII's reasonable accommodation standard for a sincerely held religious belief suggests otherwise—sometimes it's just not worth the cost to validate your decision and prove yourself correct, especially when the solution to the problem is so simple to provide.

* Photo by hessam nabavi on Unsplash