Increasingly, employers are turning to biometric scanners — typically a fingerprint reader or handheld scanner — to track employee work time. This method of punching in and clocking out is generally more efficient and accurate than traditional methods, such as using a punch clock.
However, as with most changes, the introduction of these scanners often meets with some resistance. An employer’s job is to distinguish between legitimate and unfounded reservations. This can be a difficult task, especially when the objection is based on religious belief. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on, among other things, religion, so it is important to handle religious objections appropriately.
That’s the problem a West Virginia employer, Consol Energy, Inc., faced when it implemented a hand scanner timing system at its coal mine and turned down a religious accommodation offer. for one of its employees. According to the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in EEOC vs. Consol Energy, Inc.Consol made the wrong call.
A longtime Consol employee of 37 years, Beverly Butcher, reported to his employer that he could not use the scanner’s timing system because he believed, based on the New Testament Book of Revelation , that the scanner would associate him with the Mark of the Beast, allowing the Antichrist to identify and manipulate him, ultimately subjecting him to eternal punishment. Instead of using the scanner, Butcher offered to check in with his shift supervisor or punch in on a clock. Instead of accepting Butcher’s alternative, Consol provided him with a letter from the scanner’s manufacturer assuring him that the scanner would not detect or place a mark on him. Consol also countered that the writing Butcher was performing only associated the Mark of the Beast with the right hand and that Butcher could use his left hand.
Although Butcher considered Consol’s proposal, he ultimately determined that he could not participate in the scanning system in good conscience. Even though the scanner left no physical or visible mark on his hand, Butcher continued to have a sincere fear that its use could lead to his identification with the Antichrist. Consol informed Butcher that if he didn’t use the scanner, he would be fired. In response, Butcher retired.
After his reluctant retirement, Butcher sued Consol for religious discrimination, prevailed at trial, and ultimately received a reward of $586,860.74. Consol appealed, but the Fourth Circuit upheld the trial court, finding that Consol was “in clear violation of Title VII” by conditioning Butcher’s continued employment on the use of the scanning system.
In so deciding, the court emphasized that Butcher’s religious reservations about the scanner were sincere. It was not necessary that his pastor agree with him or that the language of Scripture follow his theory exactly. Butcher was really worried about using the scanner for religious reasons. Consol’s assertion that Butcher’s beliefs were wrong was a distinction without difference. The court specifically noted that it is not for the employer, or the court, to question the accuracy or even the plausibility of religious interpretations. As long as there is enough evidence that a belief is genuine, “that’s the end of the matter.”
What really seemed to irritate the court, however, was that Consol had provided accommodation for two other employees with hand injuries. Instead of holding their hands in front of the scanner, these employees were allowed to enter their personal numbers on a keypad attached to the system. Offering this alternative to the two employees imposed no additional cost or burden on Consol, and allowing Butcher to do the same would have been equally free. This completely undermined any argument by Consol that an accommodation would be unreasonable or would impose an unfair hardship on the employer.
Consol also attempted to argue that he did not discipline or abuse Butcher because of his religious belief, noting that he voluntarily retired. The Fourth Circuit easily settled this claim, noting that an employee is considered terminated when an employer makes the employee’s working conditions intolerable. It really doesn’t get much more intolerable than demanding that an individual use an instrument which they believe will make them a follower of the Antichrist and, in their own words, will be “tormented with fire and brimstone.”
Employers should think carefully before refusing a religious accommodation, especially if they have made similar accommodations for non-religious reasons. More importantly, however illogical a supervisor or human resources representative might consider someone’s religious basis for doing or refusing to do something, the determinative question is whether the belief is genuinely held by the employee. individual. Any discussion of religious belief itself should be limited, respectful, and without comment on its merits.
The need to make religious accommodations when it comes to schedules, clothing, or even timing software isn’t going anywhere. Employers should train their managers to treat any request based on religion with respect, refraining from judging creed and engaging in discussion with the requesting employee about accommodations, if any, that will resolve the issue. . As a general rule, employers should make accommodations that do not impose undue hardship on the business or operations. Employers who have questions about dealing with specific religious discrimination or accommodation issues should contact their labor and employment lawyer.