Friday, February 13, 2015

Applicant Can’t Claim Religious Bias After Refusing to Give "Mark of the Beast"

Many employers are convinced that the law requires them to accommodate almost every religious belief that an applicant or employee may have.  The law actually does not go quite that far.  In fact, one federal court of appeals just ruled that an employer does not have to accommodate the religious beliefs of an applicant who refused to provide his social security number because allowing him to work without providing it would violate federal law.

Donald Yeager, a fundamentalist Christian, disavowed and disclaimed his social security number when he was 18 years old.  His religious views included the belief that such identification numbers are the “Mark of the Beast.”  (Other folks apparently share that belief.)  He later applied for an internship with FirstEnergy Generation Corporation but refused to give his social security number.  FirstEnergy refused to hire him on the basis that the Internal Revenue Code requires employers to collect and provide the social security numbers of their employees.

Yeager sued FirstEnergy, alleging that the company unlawfully refused to accommodate his religious observance and practice.  He noted that accommodating his request would not cause any undue hardship on FirstEnergy’s business operations.  The lawsuit sought front pay, back pay, seniority and related fringe benefits, double damages, exemplary damages, an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees and expenses, interest, and recovery of court costs.

In order to prove his case, Yeager needed to show that:

-  he held a religious belief that was in conflict with a company employment requirement;

-  he informed the employer of the religious belief; and

-  he was not hired because he failed to satisfy the employer’s requirement.

FirstEnergy moved to dismiss the case, noting that the requirement to provide a social security number was imposed by the Internal Revenue Code, not by FirstEnergy.  Thus, it argued, Yeager was actually seeking an accommodation to get relief from the Internal Revenue Code, rather than from a company policy.

The trial court agreed with FirstEnergy and dismissed the lawsuit.  When Yeager appealed, the Sixth Circuit upheld the dismissal.  The court ruled that Yeager could not prove even the basic elements of his case because the “policy” at issue was actually a federal statute, and an employer is not required to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs if doing so would violate the law.

Employers should take heart that common sense carried the day in this case, but the decision should not be seen as giving them carte blanche to simply reject most requests for a religious accommodation.  It is generally a legal requirement, not to mention cheaper - hey, defending a lawsuit costs money – and more practical, to work with the employee to try to find some satisfactory resolution.  At the very least, it’s a good opportunity to try out some positive employee relations, which can pay big dividends in the long run.  In the end, however, there indeed are times when, as here, employers are legally permitted to just refuse an accommodation request.

The court's decision is available here.

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