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Employee’s religious belief doesn’t let her dictate your business

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employee Benefits Program,Employment Law,Human Resources

Sandra Bruff was a counselor for an employee assistance program (EAP), but she balked at helping employees deal with their homosexual or extramarital relationships. That kind of advice violated her religious beliefs.

When the company learned about her objections, it asked her to put in writing exactly what counseling responsibilities she wanted to be excused from. The medical center tried to accommodate her by shifting responsibilities among the EAP counselors but decided it would create an undue hardship on the other counselors and clients.

The company gave her several options, including the help of a job counselor to find another position inside the company. Bruff lost one position to someone more qualified and she refused even to apply for others. Instead, she sued and a jury awarded her more than $2 million for religious discrimination, which a judge then reduced to about $300,000.

The appeals court threw out the entire verdict, however, saying the employer had offered a reasonable accommodation. (Bruff v. North Mississippi Health Services Inc., No. 99-60175, 5th Cir., 2001)

Advice: While you must try to accommodate a worker's legitimate religious beliefs, you can draw the line at efforts that would cause an "undue hardship" for your business. The courts have made it tough to prove an "undue hardship," but if you feel you're at that point and can prove it, stick to your guns.

Also, accommodations are a two-way street. Employees have to participate actively in finding a new position or accommodation. The "sit-back-and-sue" tactic won't sit well with the court.

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