The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided a religious discrimination case that has significant implications for employers with employees expressing religious objections to dealing with certain customers.
The facts of the case are a little convoluted: the plaintiff, a devout Christian who believes it immoral to engage in same sex sexual relationships, worked for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta via a contract under which she performed counseling as part of an employee assistance program for CDC employees. The plaintiff worked as an EAP counselor, and her contract required that EAP services be made available for all CDC employees, regardless of the nature of personal or organizational issues related to work or life.
Her direct supervisor was aware that plaintiff considered herself conflicted with respect to her religious beliefs and her job responsibilities in counseling homosexual clients. About a year after advising her supervisor of these conflicts, Plaintiff performed an initial intake counseling session with a CDC employee who indicated that she was in a same sex relationship for 18 years and had some relationship issues. The plaintiff recognized that she was going to have difficulty performing the counseling, and advised the client that because of plaintiff’s “personal values”, she was not the best counselor for the client and that her personal values would likely interfere with a client therapist relationship, which would not be fair to the client. The plaintiff then referred the CDC employee to another counselor.
The CDC employee was upset on how the intake session and referral was handled and complained to the plaintiff’s supervisor.
The company, of course, followed up with the plaintiff, and specifically asked her if she would be willing to tell clients that she was not able to deal with same sex relationship issues because of a "lack of experience." The plaintiff replied that she could not lie when making an referral. Because of plaintiff’s indication that she would not tell homosexual clients she couldn't deal with them because of a lack of experience, but rather due to her personal values and religious beliefs, the employer removed her from her counseling session. The company offered her the opportunity to apply for different positions within the company, but the plaintiff did not avail herself of that opportunity.
The trial court dismissed the case before trial and the Eleventh Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal, noting that the employer’s decision was not based on the plaintiff’s religious beliefs, but because of the manner in which she handled the referral. The court also noted that it was not part of the plaintiff’s religious beliefs to tell clients that she could not counsel them due to her religious beliefs or personal values. That was the key for her employer – not that her religious values precluded her from dealing with homosexual clients, but rather that the way the plaintiff advised them that she couldn't deal with them was problematic.
Although this might seem like a distinction without a difference, it is crucial. The key to defending religious discrimination claims is to identify specifically the religious practice and belief at issue and the conduct that is the actual cause of the adverse employment actions. Companies that confront a religious accommodation or discrimination claim need to immediately begin to draw lines around the decision making process so that they can better pare off religious issue claims and concentrate on employee conduct that is actually driving the adverse employment decision. Doing this can help you make a better employment decision and at the same time may well reveal alternate ways of dealing with the issue that can work within the aegis of the employee’s religious preferences.