“Mark of the Beast”: Fourth Circuit Upholds Judgment That Employer Failed to Accommodate Employee’s Religious Beliefs
A recent Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling highlights an employer’s mistakes when refusing an employee’s request for a religious accommodation. The case, EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., upheld the lower court’s judgment against Consol that it failed to accommodate an employee’s religious objection to participate in the employer’s mandated biometric hand scanner system. The Fourth Circuit also upheld the district court’s damages award to the employee of almost $600,000.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought suit on behalf of the employee, Beverly Butcher (“Butcher”) against Consol. The lawsuit alleged that Consol violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by refusing to accommodate Butcher’s religious beliefs and then constructively discharging his employment. The following facts were presented at trial:
Butcher, a life-long evangelical Christian, worked for Consol for 37 years at its West Virginia mining facility. In 2012, Consol implemented a biometric hand scanner to track its employees. Butcher notified his supervisor that he objected to using the hand scanner on the basis of his Christian religious beliefs. Specifically, Butcher believed that if he used the hand scanner it would give him the “Mark of Beast,” thus branding him as a follower of the Antichrist. Even though the hand scanner did not leave any physical or discernable mark on his hand, Butcher believed that he would still be “marked” as a follower of the Antichrist. Butcher’s union representative brought Butcher’s religious objection to Consol’s human resources department.
Consol’s human resources representative then requested that Butcher get a letter from his pastor that supported Butcher’s religious beliefs regarding the scanner. The letter from Butcher’s pastor simply affirmed Butcher’s “deep dedication to the Lord Jesus Christ.” To complement his pastor’s letter, Butcher also submitted his own letter further explaining the basis for his religious objections to the hand scanner, with citations from the Book of Revelation. In response, Consol sent Butcher a letter from the hand scanner’s manufacturer assuring Butcher that the hand scanner cannot place a physical or other mark, including the Mark of the Beast, on a person. The manufacturer’s letter also provided its own religious interpretation of the hand scanner, contending that the Mark of the Beast is only associated with the forehead or right hand. Therefore, according to the manufacturer, Butcher was free to use his left hand on the scanner and not compromise his religious beliefs.
During this same time period, Consol made accommodations for two other employees who, due to hand injuries, could not use the hand scanner system. In lieu of the hand scanner, Consol allowed these employees to check in with a numerical keypad. Consol’s trial witness testified that this accommodation did not result in any additional costs or administrative burdens to Consol. Butcher was unaware that his fellow employees were given this accommodation. Despite this keypad accommodation for the other employees, Consol required Butcher to use the hand scanner with his left hand. Butcher declined to use his left hand on the scanner citing his religious beliefs regarding the Mark of the Beast. As a result, he was given a series of disciplinary procedures related to an employee’s refusal to use the hand scanner. These disciplinary procedures included suspension and eventual discharge. Upon reviewing these procedures, Butcher believed that he had to use the hand scanner or be fired by Consol, so he chose to retire.
The district court jury ruled in favor of the EEOC and found Consol liable for refusing to accommodate Butcher’s religious beliefs. Consol timely appealed the jury verdict ruling to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Appellate Court Ruling
The Fourth Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling in favor of the EEOC and Butcher that Consol failed to make a religious accommodation for Butcher. The Court also dismissed Consol’s claim that the scanner did not violate Butcher’s religious beliefs because the scanner did not leave an actual mark on Butcher’s hand. In the Court’s view, Consol’s attempt to give an alternative religious interpretation of the hand scanner through the manufacturer’s letter and evidence that Butcher’s pastor did not share the same view of the hand scanner were “beside the point.” As the Court noted, “It is not Consol’s place as an employer, nor ours as a court, to question the correctness or even the plausibility of Butcher’s religious understandings.”
The Court also held that Consol failed to demonstrate that Butcher’s accommodation request was unfeasible or imposed an undue hardship on Consol’s business. In fact, Consol made an accommodation for two other employees, whose hand injuries prevented them from using the hand scanner, by providing them with a numerical keypad system to check in.
The Fourth Circuit also upheld the district court’s ruling regarding the constructive discharge judgment. The Court held that Consol’s refusal to accommodate Butcher’s religious beliefs created sufficient intolerable work conditions that would force any “reasonable person” in Butcher’s shoes to quit or retire.
While the case presents many insights for employers, a key insight is that employers should not attempt to rebut or counter an employee’s religious beliefs with arguments by those of the same or similar faith background. As the Fourth Circuit noted, “So long as there is sufficient evidence that Butcher’s beliefs are sincerely held . . . . that is the end of the matter.”
This case demonstrates that employee requests for a religious accommodation can present complex legal issues for an employer. If you have questions regarding religious accommodations or other employment law matters, please contact an attorney at Bea & VandenBerk.
This article is provided for general information and is not intended to be legal advice for any specific situation. If you are in need of specific advice or legal representation, please do not hesitate to contact us.
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