Fifth Circuit Upholds Religious Discrimination Claim by Fort Bend County Employee

Religious discrimination claims are different from most other types of discrimination claims because, under appropriate circumstances, an employer may have an affirmative obligation to accommodate an employee’s religious practices.  The Fifth Circuit considered this type of religious discrimination claim in Davis v. Fort Bend County, No.13-20610 (5th Cir. Aug. 26, 2014).

The plaintiff was an IT employee with Fort Bend County.   The County required all IT employees to be at work on Sunday, July 3, in order to complete the installation of new equipment.  The plaintiff informed the County that she had a religious commitment that day and that she had arranged for someone else to replace her.  When she did not show up for work on Sunday, the County fired her.

The district court granted summary judgment for the County on the ground that the plaintiff was not attending religious services, but instead was attending church functions (breaking ground for a new church and feeding the community).  The district court found that this was a personal commitment, not a religious commitment.

The Fifth Circuit disagreed and reversed the summary judgment.  The court began by summarizing the rules for determining whether an activity is religious in nature, concluding that the courts must be deferential to the subjective views of the individual:

Bona fide religious beliefs include “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.”  A court’s inquiry is limited to focusing upon the individual’s motivation.  Specifically, a court’s task is to decide “whether [the individual’s beliefs] are, in his own scheme of things, religious.” In this regard, a belief is “religious” if it is “[a] sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by . . . God.”  Conversely, whether the belief itself is central to the religion, i.e., whether the belief is a true religious tenet, is “not open to question.”

The sincerity of a person’s religious belief is a question of fact unique to each case.  “The specific religious practice must be examined rather than the general scope of applicable religious tenets, and the plaintiff’s ‘sincerity’ in espousing that practice is largely a matter of individual credibility.”

This court has cautioned that judicial inquiry into the sincerity of a person’s religious belief “must be handled with a light touch, or judicial shyness.”  “[E]xamin[ing] religious convictions any more deeply would stray into the realm of religious inquiry, an area into which we are forbidden to tread.”  Indeed, “the sincerity of a plaintiff’s engagement in a particular religious practice is rarely challenged,” and “claims of sincere religious belief in a particular practice have been accepted on little more than the plaintiff’s credible assertions.”  (citations omitted).

Applying that standard, the court concluded that the record raised a fact question as to whether the plaintiff was exercising bona fide religious beliefs, as opposed to merely honoring a personal commitment:

We disagree with Fort Bend and the district court. Neither addresses whether Davis’s religious belief was sincere and, instead, both improperly focus upon the nature of the activity itself. A showing of sincerity, however, does not require proof that the July 3rd church event was in itself a true religious tenet, but only that Davis sincerely believed it to be religious in her own scheme of things. Thus, even if attendance at the “community service event” was arguably not a religious tenet but a mere request by her Pastor, “[t]hese telling arguments address an issue that is not for federal courts, powerless as we are to evaluate the logic or validity of beliefs found religious and sincerely held.” (citation omitted).

Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit turned to the issue of whether the County had reasonably accommodated the plaintiff’s religious beliefs.  The County asserted an undue hardship defense, arguing that requiring one employee to substitute for another employee would be burdensome.  The Fifth Circuit was unpersuaded.  In addition to finding that the County’s evidence was insufficient to satisfy the summary judgment standards, the court offered this guidance:

We also reject Fort Bend’s arguments because, even though Fort Bend correctly recites precedent, it misapplies law to facts. Fort Bend correctly asserts that requiring an employee to substitute for Davis’s absence may, as a matter of law, impose more than a de minimis cost. Fort Bend is also correct that permitting Davis to be absent may leave it short-handed and, therefore, impose an undue hardship as a matter of law. But these cases do not apply to the facts here because there was a ready and willing volunteer to substitute for Davis.

Substituting a volunteer does not necessarily impose the same hardship on the employer, if any, as requiring an employee to substitute for another’s religious observance. In holding that Title VII does not require an employer to substitute employees, the Supreme Court in Hardison stated “[t]here were no volunteers to relieve Hardison on Saturdays, and to give Hardison Saturdays off, TWA would have had to deprive another employee of his shift preference at least in part because he did not adhere to a religion that observed the Saturday Sabbath.” In Eversley, we relied on this language from Hardison to hold that “it is unreasonable and an undue hardship on an employer to require the employer to force employees, over their express refusal, to permanently switch from a daytime to a nighttime shift in order to accommodate another employee’s different Sabbath observation.” Further, in disagreeing with any implication that an “employer may be required to force other employees into a disadvantageous permanent switch of shifts against their wishes,” we noted that “the Sixth Circuit seems to have assumed that an employer’s attempt to seek out employees who would be willing to switch shifts would be a reasonable accommodation for purposes of Title VII.”

The court held that, because the plaintiff had arranged for a substitute, the County had failed to establish undue hardship as a matter of law.  The court reversed the summary judgment and remanded to the district court.

Judge Jerry Smith dissented on both holdings, arguing that the plaintiff’s activities were not religious in nature and that allowing the plaintiff to miss work presented an undue hardship for the employer even when the plaintiff had found a volunteer replacement.

David C. Holmes is a Houston employment lawyer with The Law Offices of David C. Holmes

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