Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Employment law - accomodating religion

Just how far must an employer go in accommodating a person's religion?

I missed this case when it came down from the federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Indiana lies in the Seventh Circuit) but picked it up from Ross' Employment Law Blog. Here is the case outline from that blog:

What to do when a pharmacist, for religious reasons, refuses to handle birth control prescriptions?

Neil Noesen went to work for Wal-Mart as a pharmacist. He had religious objections to contraceptive articles, so the boss set things up so Noesen did not have to fill birth control prescriptions, take customer orders for birth control, or handle birth control items.

That wasn't enough for Noesen. If a customer phoned in with a birth control prescription, Noesen put them on hold and walked away without alerting someone else. When a customer came to the counter with a birth control prescription, he would walk away without telling anyone that a customer needed assistance.

Wal-Mart fired Noesen, so of course he brought a federal suit claiming a violation of Title VII.

Wal-Mart won. Accommodating an employee's religion cannot impose undue burden on the employer. The opinion is here (PDF format) and it shows as a non-precedential opinion (which means that it cannot be cited). However, I do think the opinion can be educational if not cited as law.

Title VII always protected an employee's religious beliefs from interference by an employee. Yet, I think a trend of more litigation on religious claims exists and the pharmacists refusing to provide birth control is the cutting edge of this litigation trend. Ross'e Employment Law Blog found the case on the Religion Clause blog. I think reading the post there and its comments gives an idea as to the ideological basis for this trend.

Back to the present case, I was thinking what my reaction would be if one of my business clients called with this sort of problem. I tend to err on the conservative side and would probably have counseled accommodation. Even though I think the behavior goes so far beyond what most would consider reasonable to be disruptive of the business. I noticed that Workplace Prof Blog has a post on the case and I do like his description of the employee's behavior:
Given the employee's insubordinate actions, however, I think the Court could have upheld the termination for reasons unrelated to the employee's religious beliefs without doing a religious accommodation analysis.
Even though I agree with the ideas above, I do think the Court needed to do the accommodation analysis. The accommodation analysis forestalls similar cases in the Seventh Circuit. I doubt the decision stops all similar litigation due to my belief that ideology drives these cases and not legalities.