Client Bulletin #516
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EDITOR'S NOTE: On January 7, 2015, a federal judge in West Virginia denied both parties' motions for summary judgment, meaning that this case will go to trial.
A mining company that perhaps should have been more accommodating to an evangelical Christian employee is now being sued for religious discrimination by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Consolidation Coal Company installed an attendance tracking system for payroll purposes at its Robinson Run Mine in West Virginia that requires employees to electronically sign in using a biometric hand scanner. This technology creates and stores electronic information about an individual's hand geometry for purposes of future identification.
Employee Beverly Butcher is an evangelical Christian with 35 years of service at the mine. When faced with the biometric logging in, he said that his religious beliefs prohibited him from submitting to the scanning. Mr. Butcher gave his manager a letter explaining his beliefs about the relationship between hand scanning technology and the Mark of the Beast and antichrist discussed in the Book of Revelation in the Bible, and requested exemption from hand scanning.
His managers initially responded by handing Mr. Butcher a letter written by its scanner vendor, Recognition Systems, Inc., addressed to "To Whom it May Concern." The vendor's letter discussed the vendor's interpretation of the scripture passage; pointed out that the text referenced the Mark of the Beast only on the right hand and forehead; and suggested that persons with concerns about taking the Mark of the Beast "be enrolled" with their left hand and palm facing up. The letter concluded by assuring the reader that the vendor's scanner product did not, in fact, assign the Mark of the Beast.
Mr. Butcher proposed that he continue submitting his time and attendance manually as he had previously done, or that he be permitted to check in and check out with his supervisor.
At a later meeting, his managers proposed that Mr. Butcher submit to scanning of his left hand turned palm up, as suggested by the vendor. Mr. Butcher said that his beliefs prohibited him from submitting to scanning of either hand. The managers held firm, and told Mr. Butcher that he would be subject to disciplinary action if he refused to use the scanning system. Mr. Butcher said that he would retire involuntarily rather than violate his beliefs.
He then filed an EEOC charge claiming religious discrimination, and the agency filed suit on his behalf alleging religious discrimination and failure to make religious accommodation.
According to the EEOC, at least two persons employed at the Robinson Run Mine at the time that Mr. Butcher requested religious accommodation were permitted exemptions from biometric hand scanning due to missing fingers. They were permitted to submit their time and attendance by other means.
Common Sense Counsel: Religious discrimination is a hot button issue for the EEOC. A reasonable religious accommodation is any adjustment that will allow the employee to practice his or her religion and still work, without creating an undue hardship for the employer. Examples of accommodation include flexible scheduling, voluntary substitutions or swaps, or modification of workplace rules, including log-in requirements. Employers should have a well drafted employee handbook, a dress code, and a job description with essential functions, and should be in an "accommodating" mood when employees plead special circumstances based on their religious beliefs. Engaging in a Bible sword drill with employees is not a wise strategy.
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