You don’t have to accommodate bogus religious beliefs

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

David Cruz claimed that his religious belief as a Seventh-day Adventist prohibited him from joining a union. He complained to his employer about union practices and was fired at the union's request. Shortly after that, Cruz filed a religious discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

A federal appeals court tossed out his claim, saying there were serious questions about whether Cruz actually held a bona fide religious belief.

The court pointed to behaviors that didn't mesh with Cruz's religion. For example, he worked five days a week (instead of the six required by his faith), he was divorced (the religion doesn't allow divorce), he took an oath before a notary upon becoming a public employee (followers aren't supposed to pledge an "oath" to anyone but God) and he lied on his job application.

The court also said Cruz's alleged religion-union conflict was a moving target. At first, he objected only to certain union requirements. But when the union agreed to accommodate each problem, he opposed union membership in full. (EEOC v. Union Independiente De La Autoridad De Acueductos Y Alcantarillados De Puerto Rico, No. 00-2478, 1st Cir., 2002)

This ruling is surprising in light of a long line of cases interpreting very broadly the definition of "religion" under Title VII. The definition has even expanded to include moral and ethical beliefs that assume just the function of religion. Using this logic, even an atheist is protected by Title VII's prohibition against religious bias.

Advice: Nobody can use this case as a license to trample on employee's religious beliefs. But if there's evidence the employee is simply using religion as a shield to dodge his job requirements, you have more standing to refuse an accommodation. You also can refuse religious accommodations that would place an "undue hardship" on your company.

However, assessing the sincerity of an employee's belief is a delicate business. That's why it's best to err on the side of caution and acceptance, and guard against letting your managers' actions stem from their own ideas of what a religion should resemble.

Finally, if you have a legitimate case of an employee's religious practices prohibiting payment of union dues, the EEOC says the employee can be required to pay an equal sum to a charitable organization.

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