• Key point. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits covered employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of religion. This means that employers must attempt to “accommodate” the religious practices of employees, so long as they can do so without suffering any undue hardship.
A federal court in Kansas ruled that an employer committed unlawful religious discrimination by dismissing two employees for engaging in religious speech with customers. Service America Corporation operates a cafeteria at a General Motors automobile manufacturing plant. Customers walk in, order their meals, receive prompt service, and pay for their meals. Service America’s policy has been to train food service workers to greet customers in an appropriate and friendly fashion by saying things such as “Hello. What can I get for you today?” Two employees (the “plaintiffs”) hired in 1994 frequently greeted customers by saying “God bless you,” “Praise the Lord,” and other similar phrases. At certain times, because they felt that the Holy Spirit moved them to bless all GM employees, they extended such blessings to all of their food service customers. Service America deemed the plaintiffs’ greetings to be inappropriate and contrary to its policy. A number of GM customers complained to Service America about the plaintiffs’ religious speech. On a number of occasions, Service America directed the plaintiffs not to say “God bless you,” “Praise the Lord” or other similar phrases to food service customers. Ultimately, Service America warned each plaintiff that he would be terminated if he refused to stop. Even after being warned, however, the plaintiffs refused to comply. Therefore, Service America terminated their employment. The plaintiffs sued Service America, claiming that its actions violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits covered employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of religion. The plaintiffs maintained that they were Christians who felt strongly that because of what God has done for them and the joy He has given them by changing their lives dramatically, they had to say things that were positive, uplifting and inspirational to people with whom they spoke, and their religious greetings emanated from this belief. Honoring God through their speech, through such greetings, was a deep seated and sincerely held religious belief and the plaintiffs could not stop the practice without violating their beliefs. Service America claimed that it did not have to tolerate these employees’ religious practices if doing so would impose an undue hardship on it. It insisted that allowing the plaintiffs to continue their religious greetings would impose an undue hardship because it would jeopardize their business relationship with GM.
The court noted that Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to “discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s … religion.” Religion is defined to include only those “aspects of religious observance and practice” that an employer is able to “reasonably accommodate … without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” The intent and effect of this definition of “religion” is to make it a violation of Title VII for an employer not to make reasonable accommodations, short of undue hardship, for the religious practice of employees.
Courts have implemented a two—step procedure for evaluating claims and allocating burdens of proof under these provisions. First, plaintiff has the burden of establishing a “prima facie case.” A plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of religious discrimination by proving that (1) he or she has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement; (2) he or she informed the employer of this belief; and (3) he or she was disciplined for failure to comply with the conflicting employment requirement. Once a plaintiff has made out a prima facie case, “the burden shifts to the employer to show that it was unable reasonably to accommodate the plaintiff’s religious needs without undue hardship.”
Service America conceded that the plaintiffs established a prima facie case of religious discrimination. The burden therefore shifted to Service America “to show reasonable accommodation, or that reasonable accommodation would be an undue hardship.” Since Service America did not attempt to accommodate the plaintiffs’ religious practice of blessing food service customers, the issue was whether its refusal to accommodate the plaintiffs’ religious speech violated its obligation under Title VII to “reasonably accommodate” its employees’ religious practice without undue hardship on the conduct of its business. Service America claimed that it could not reasonably accommodate the plaintiffs’ religious greetings and that it therefore had a right to terminate their employment. It claimed that the plaintiffs’ jobs were “completely incompatible” with their religious practices because they were required to serve customers; their greetings contradicted Service America’s legitimate preference for appropriate greetings; and they refused to interact with customers in an appropriate manner. Service America claimed that “the only possible accommodation” would have been to keep plaintiffs away from customers and that any such accommodation was untenable because it would have left Service America shorthanded or required it to hire other employees to pick up the slack caused by plaintiffs’ unwillingness to greet customers as Service America directed.
The court rejected Service America’s claim that retaining the plaintiffs and allowing them to continue their religious greetings would have imposed an undue hardship upon it. It noted that allowing the plaintiffs’ greetings inflicted only a minimal burden on Service America. It stressed that undue hardship cannot be proven by speculation, and yet this is what Service America was attempting to do: “The fear that customers would boycott Service America and bring sack lunches from home to avoid the plaintiffs’ religious speech-and that Service America would sustain a material loss on account of that activity-is more hypothetical than real. Likewise, the fact that the plaintiffs’ greetings might eventually impair the contractual relationship between Service America and General Motors is, while conceivable, speculative at best.” The court then responded to Service America’s claim that it had received complaints from GM workers: “Given the volume of customers served (2,000 to 3,000 per day), plaintiffs are entitled to the benefit of the favorable inference that 20 to 25 complaints over a three—month period presented no material problem for Service America.”
The Court emphasized that Title VII “does not necessarily require an employer to allow an employee to impose his religious views on customers.” However, the evidence in this case did not indicate that the plaintiffs were attempting to proselytize GM employees or impose their religious views on others.
Application. This case provides church leaders with an excellent summary of the analysis applied by federal courts in evaluating the claims of employees that an employer has violated their right to be free from religious discrimination in the workplace. Banks v. Service America Corporation, 72 EPD ¶45,018 (D. Kan. 1996). [The Civil Rights Act of 1964]
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