Freedom of Religion – Part 2

Church Law and Tax 1989-03-01 Recent Developments Freedom of Religion Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M.,

Church Law and Tax 1989-03-01 Recent Developments

Freedom of Religion

Can a secular business that is owned by evangelical Christians compel employees to attend weekly devotional services during working hours? That was the issue before a federal appeals court in a recent case. Townley Manufacturing Company was established in 1963 to manufacture mining equipment. Its owners made a “covenant” with God that there business “would be a Christian, faith-operated business.” The “covenant with God” is reflected in a number of ways—including the enclosure of Gospel tracts in every piece of outgoing mail, the printing of Bible verses on company invoices, support of various churches and missionaries, and weekly devotional services during working hours. An employee handbook specified that “all employees are required to attend the non-denominational devotional services each Tuesday. Employees are paid for their time while attending these services.” In 1979, Townley hired an atheist who signed an statement agreeing to abide by the employee handbook. Soon after starting work, the atheist asked to be excused from attending the weekly devotional services. His supervisor told him that attendance was mandatory, but that he was free to sleep or read a newspaper during the services. A short time later, the individual filed a religious discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC charged Townley with violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of religion. Specifically, the EEOC objected to the requirement that all employees attend devotional services, and the company’s failure to “accommodate” the employee’s objection to attending services. A federal trial court prohibited all mandatory devotional services at Townley’s plant, and Townley appealed. The appeals court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against any employee on the basis of religion, and further requires employers to “accommodate” the religious practices of employees so long as such accommodation does not result in undue hardship to the employer. The court concluded that Townley had violated Title VII by refusing to make any effort to accommodate the employee’s objection to devotional services. It acknowledged that an employer need not accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs if such accommodation would result in “undue hardship” to the conduct of the employer’s business, but it concluded that accommodating an employee’s desire to be excused from attending devotional services would not result in any “undue hardship” to the conduct of Townley’s business. The court also rejected Townley’s contention that the employee, by signing the statement agreeing to abide by Townley’s policies, had “waived” his rights under Title VII. It noted that the “Supreme Court has stated that ‘there can be no prospective waiver of an employee’s rights under Title VII.'” Finally, the court acknowledged that “religious corporations” are exempt from Title VII’s ban on religious discrimination in employment, but it rejected Townley’s claim that it was a religious corporation. Specifically, the court observed that “the company is for profit,” produced a “secular product,” was “not affiliated with or supported by a church,” and its charter did not mention religion in reciting the company’s corporate purposes. The court emphasized that the company was free to conduct weekly devotional services, and could even make them mandatory with respect to all employees who did not have religious objections to attending them. E.E.O.C. v. Townley Engineering & Manufacturing Co., 859 F.2d 610 (9th Cir. 1988).

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