Religious freedom and discrimination are hot topics now with the cases of the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses and the Muslim flight attendant who refused to serve alcohol. Both are claiming they were merely adhering to their religious beliefs, which were relatively new to each. That may be, but should both be accommodated by their respective employers?
County Clerk (an elected position in Rowan County) Kim Davis stopped issuing marriage licenses to all couples, gay and straight after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling permitting same-sex marriages. Despite repeated legal actions and court decisions against her, she continued to cite “God’s authority” in her choice to defy the courts. Eventually, she was jailed for contempt of court.
Davis has maintained throughout that her Christian beliefs required her to oppose the licenses. After four marriages and a turmoil filled life, she became a devout Christian four years ago, reportedly honoring the dying wish of her mother-in-law.
Charee Stanley, a Muslim flight attendant, was suspended by her airline, ExpressJet, reportedly for refusing to serve alcohol on flights. Stanley, an employee with three years’ tenure, became a Muslim about two years ago. She approached her management in June asking how she could avoid serving cocktails to passengers since she recently discovered that Islamic law forbids alcohol.
Her supervisors reportedly told her to make a deal with fellow flight attendants so they serve any alcoholic beverages. The arrangement appeared to be working fine until a coworker complained to the airline last month that Stanley had been delinquent in doing her job for refusing to serve alcohol to passengers. According to the complaint her attorney filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), ExpressJet then revoked the arrangement previously made to accommodate her religious beliefs and put her on unpaid leave.
Both Davis and Stanley are claiming the need for religious accommodation. But the religious freedom and discrimination situations of the Kentucky clerk and Muslim flight attendant are different.
The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) requires employers to accommodate religious beliefs and practices of applicants and employees, unless doing so “would cause more than a minimal burden on the operation of the employer’s business. “ Typical accommodations include flexible schedules, voluntary shift substitutions, job reassignments, and exceptions to dress or grooming rules. Employers do not have to allow an accommodation that is costly, compromises safety, decreases staff efficiency, infringes on the rights of other workers, or requires other employees to do more than their share of work.
The law also requires that the employee’s beliefs be “sincerely held.” An employer can reasonably be skeptical if, an employee suddenly develops a religious objection to something after doing it for years. This could be argued in Stanley’s case, where she had been serving alcohol before.
Davis’s supporters argue that she should not have to carry out the duties of her office if doing so conflicts with her religious beliefs. Would the same apply for someone Jewish issuing business licenses to refuse grant one for a restaurant that will serve pork? Or a motor vehicle department employee who is Muslim refusing to give women drivers’ licenses because of a he believes that women should not drive? Employees in some government positions are required, as a condition of employment, to uphold policies with which they personally disagree (do all federal employees leave when there is a new President from a different party?.
In some cases, would it be reasonable to shift the employee to a different job in the agency that does not require a true work-life conflict? That might be okay, but in Davis’ case, she ran for the office notably after the U.S. Supreme Court heard the same-sex marriage case so she knew there was a likelihood that the Court would rule as it did. In Stanley’s case, not that many passengers order alcohol so it seems reasonable that she handle other duties in exchange for another flight attendant handling drinks. But, what if they were all Muslim or even Mormon and do not condone alcohol?
Seeking a compromise, lawyers for Davis are now asking Kentucky Gov. Steven L. Beshear to accommodate her “religious conviction” by allowing her to remove her name and title from official marriage certificates. The Stanley situation is before the EEOC for a ruling. But, the stories of the Kentucky County Clerk and the Muslim flight attendant show the difficulty for employers in dealing with issues of religious discrimination or accommodation.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
USA Today: Muslim Flight attendant suspended for not serving alcohol
SHRM: What are the California rules regarding religious accommodation, and how do they differ from federal law?
New York Daily News: Muslim flight attendant suspended for refusing to serve alcohol, files discrimination complaint: advocacy group
Los Angeles Times: Kentucky clerk Kim Davis appeals order putting her in jail
EEOC: Religious Discrimination