Articles Posted in Religious Discrimination

On July 8, 2020, the United States Supreme Court narrowed employment protections from state and federal anti-discrimination laws for religious schoolteachers. In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, No. 19-267, the Court held that the First Amendment’s religion clauses foreclose courts from hearing employment-discrimination claims from teachers at religious schools who have at least some role in teaching the faith.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled, in Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 565 U.S. 171 (2012), that the “ministerial exception,” which bars ministers from suing churches and other religious institutions for employment discrimination, prohibited a lawsuit filed by a teacher at a Lutheran school who was also an ordained minister. By a vote of 7-2, the Court held that the exception also forecloses lawsuits by two teachers at Catholic elementary schools in southern California. Although the teachers were not ordained ministers, the schools had argued that the exception nonetheless applied because they played a key role in teaching religion to their students, and the Court – in an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito – agreed.

The decision came in a pair of cases, against parish schools in the Los Angeles area. Agnes Morrissey-Berru taught at Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Hermosa Beach for nearly two decades before she was told that her contract would not be renewed. Morrissey-Berru went to federal court, where she claimed that she had been the victim of age discrimination. The district court threw out the lawsuit, agreeing with the school that the ministerial exception applied. The second plaintiff, Kristen Biel, sued St. James School in Torrance when – not long after she disclosed that she was being treated for breast cancer – the school failed to renew her contract. Biel claimed that the school had discriminated against her because she had cancer, but the district court agreed with the school that Biel’s lawsuit was barred by the ministerial exception. The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reinstated both teachers’ lawsuits. It reasoned that the ministerial exception normally applies when an employee plays a “religious leadership” role, but that Biel and Morrissey-Berru played a more limited role, mostly “teaching religion from a book.” The schools went to the Supreme Court, which reversed.

Although the statute of limitations for filing a claim under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) lapses after two years from the last act of discrimination, a plaintiff may still have a viable LAD claim under the continuing violation doctrine according to a recent Appellate Division decision in Mansour v. Brooklake Club Corp., 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1579 (N.J. App. Div. decided July 10, 2019).

Plaintiff Adel Mansour was employed as a cook for Defendant Brooklake Club (Brooklake) between 2003 and 2016. Id. at *2. He alleged that during the time he worked for Brooklake his supervisor harassed him because Mansour was Egyptian and Muslim. Mansour’s supervisor frequently made unwelcome comments to or around Mansour about former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood and implied Mansour had ties to terrorist organizations and activities. Id. at *2-3. In March 2014, when Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared, Mansour’s supervisor “joked” about the pilot being Egyptian and then hung a large world map in the kitchen on which he wrote “Adel, where is it?” in reference to the lost plane. Id. at *4. Mansour’s supervisor also continuously criticized Mansour for not eating pork and frequently referenced that Muslims do not eat pork for religious reasons, telling Mansour, “…you Muslims don’t know what you’re missing.” Id. at *5-6. Mansour felt singled out by this conduct and told his supervisor to stop on numerous occasions, but the comments continued. Id. at *4-5.

The trial court found Mansour’s hostile work environment claim untimely because most of the alleged discriminatory acts took place outside of the LAD’s two-year statute of limitations. Id. at *5. However, the Appellate Division agreed with Mansour that the trial court “misapplied the continuing violation doctrine and failed to recognize the cumulative pattern of ongoing harassment he suffered directly related to his religion and nationality.” Id. at *7.

There are many religions and religious beliefs. There’s Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Bahá’í Faith, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Slavic neopaganism, Celtic polytheism, Heathenism (German paganism), Semitic neopaganism, Wicca, Kemetism (Egyptian paganism), Hellenism, Italo-Roman neopaganism to name a few. Whatever your sincerely held religious belief is, if any, federal and state law protects your right to observe those beliefs. 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et al 2012 (“Title VII”); N.J.S.A. 10:5-1, et. seq., the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”). In fact, an employer may be required to reasonably accommodate your religious belief so long as to do so does not cause the employer or co-workers an undue hardship.

Protected religious beliefs are based on an employee’s sincerely held belief. It does not matter whether the employee has a relatable or probable belief. Rather, if the employee indisputably has a sincere religious belief, the employee is entitled to receive a reasonable accommodation from their employer regardless of whether the employer likes or agrees with that belief.  The case of United States EEOC v. Consol Energy Inc., Nos. 16-1230, 16-1406, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 10385, at*1 (4th Cir. June 12, 2017), while somewhat factually unusual, underscores how important it is for an employer to focus on whether a requested accommodation is reasonable, and not whether the employee’s religious belief is reasonable. There, the Fourth Circuit held that so long as the employee has a legitimate religious belief, regardless how farfetched, they are entitled to be reasonably accommodated.

In United States EEOC v. Consol Energy Inc., the Fourth Circuit affirmed a $586,000 award to Beverly R. Butcher (“Butcher”) because his employer violated his religious rights under Title VII. Id. Butcher, a lifelong Evangelical Christian, worked for Robinson Rue Mines (owned by Consol Energy Inc. “Consol”) for 37 years without incident. Id. When Consol decided to use biometric scanners as a method of tracking timesheets Butcher protested. Butcher explained that as a devout Christian he believed using a biometric scanner to clock in and out of his job would mark him as a follower of the Antichrist, subjecting him to an eternity of fire and brimstone. Id. at *6. Consol chose to debate the legitimacy of these beliefs with Butcher and even presented him a letter explaining how the scanner leaves no physical marks and that Butcher’s understanding of the scriptures was incorrect.  Butcher persisted and a lawsuit was filed.

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