So as Halloween approaches, a recent religious accommodations case involving the “mark of the beast” seemed seasonally appropriate.
For those of you not so familiar with the Bible, the Book of Revelation tells the story of a satanic beast that comes out of the earth and forces all humans to worship another beast coming from the sea. The worshipers are marked on their right hands or their foreheads with the number “666” – i.e. the “mark of the beast.”
Several years ago, a client implemented a biometric timekeeping system, which used a hand scanning procedure. One of the employees objected to using the new system on religious grounds, based on his fear that the system would either imprint or reveal the mark of the beast (it wasn’t terribly clear exactly what the concern was). My partner, Mike McGuire, noted that the mark appears on the right hand, however, and the employee could simply use his left hand on the scanner. Well, that seemed to fix the problem – a pretty simple solution, wasn’t it?
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out so easily for another company – Consol Energy. In that case, an employee who was an Evangelical Christian objected to the biometric scanning system for the same reasons as our client’s employee. Consol actually provided a letter to the employee from the company that made the system, explaining that the Book of Revelation specifies that the mark will appear only on the right hand (or forehead), and therefore the left hand may be used for scanning purposes.
The employee, however, believed that his religion prevented either hand from being scanned, and he requested the accommodation of recording his time manually, as he had been doing prior to the installation of the scanning system, or to check in and out with his supervisor. Consol refused his requested accommodations, and insisted that his left hand be scanned. The employee was also told that he would be disciplined if he refused to use the biometric scanning system. The employee chose to retire instead, expressly under protest.
The EEOC then sued Consol on behalf of the employee. In the Complaint, the EEOC noted that, at the time the employee requested a religious exemption from the scanning process, there were two other employees who were allowed to use alternate means of entering their time because they had missing fingers. At trial, the jury found that Consol had failed to accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs. The EEOC has now announced that the court ultimately awarded the employee over a half million dollars – specifically, $586,860 in lost wages, benefits, and compensatory damages!
What this case highlights is the fact that an employee’s religious belief does not need to be part of an organized religious doctrine in order to be protected by Title VII. It doesn’t even have to be rational – it only has to be sincere. What made logical sense to the employer was not relevant. It’s the employee’s perspective that counts. Then from the context of that perspective, the issue is whether some reasonable accommodation can be provided. And in this case, it seems reasonable to allow the employee to input his time manually, or check in and out with his supervisor, as he had proposed.
A scary story for employers!