Religious discrimination against one of "your own"? Yes, it can happen.

It's possible to discriminate against someone of your own faith. And illegal.

Carl Smith, a Catholic, was a trainee in Philadelphia's Department of Licenses and Inspection. He wasn't offered a permanent job at the end of his probationary period (which resulted in his termination), and he sued, claiming that he was discriminated against because of his religion. A federal judge has denied the City's motion for summary judgment and is going to allow the case to go to trial.

Here is the weird part: Everyone involved in the employment decision was Catholic. The permanent inspectors were Catholic, all of the supervisors were Catholic, and the manager was Catholic.

So, how can Mr. Smith get a jury trial on "Catholic discrimination"?

Apparently, he may not have been the "right" kind of Catholic. The evidence showed that one of the permanent inspectors, an alleged "zealot" and "die-hard" who had influence over whether to allow Mr. Smith to be brought on as a regular employee, gave him holy cards and "asked him to pray to the saints on the cards" every day that the two of them worked together. (Which was only three days.)

Holy cards (they have prayers on the back).

Different strokes for different folks. Mr. Smith apparently wasn't into holy cards, and he complained about the inspector's assertiveness. Mr. Smith and this inspector also had a couple of direct exchanges with reference to religion that were less than "brotherly."

The evidence showed that the inspector (and two other inspectors who were his friends) spoke negatively about Mr. Smith, and may have ruined his chances of getting a regular job. There was no dispute that Mr. Smith had the necessary technical ability. Supervisors reported having good experience when working with Mr. Smith, and several had recommended that he be offered a regular position.

The manager, who made the final decision, cited "attitude" as the reason Mr. Smith didn't get a job, but he admitted that his knowledge was only second-hand.

The judge called it a close case*, but decided that a jury could possibly find that Mr. Smith was terminated because of his religion. So the case will go to trial unless the parties settle it before then.

*Because the case was decided at the summary judgment stage, the court had to view all of the evidence in the light most favorable to Mr. Smith. It's possible that a jury will find that Mr. Smith was overly sensitive and that the inspector was just trying to be friendly with a co-worker he thought would share his beliefs.  

MORAL: Employers, "intra-sect" religious discrimination is unusual, but not unheard of. Within a given faith or denomination, there is usually a broad range of belief and practice. It's very possible that a more "observant" employee would discriminate against a less, or "differently," observant employee of the same faith or denomination, or vice versa. That would violate Title VII.

Image Credit: From flickr, Creative Commons license, by David Boté Estrada.

Robin Shea has more than 20 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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