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How Far Must Religious Accommodation in Employment Go?

Under the 1964 Civil Rights act, which prohibits discrimination inemployment based on religion, among other things, employers are required to offer “reasonable accommodations” to the religious practices and beliefs of their employees. The statute seems to have deliberately left it up to the courts what “reasonable accommodation” means.

There are a few general rules that the federal courts seem to have settled on, however. Giving employees some flexibility in scheduling in order to practice their religion? That’s reasonable. Allowing an employee to sacrifice a goat in the break room, as required by his religion? That’s not reasonable, and therefore not required. Making some exceptions to rules about headwear or jewelry to accommodate an employee’s religiously-required clothing? That’s reasonable. Allowing an employee to come to work naked, if their religion requires? That’s not reasonable.

I think you get the idea. Basically, if an accommodation would be minimally-disruptive, and would not be very costly or burdensome on the employer, it’s reasonable.

But every once in a while, an employee demands an accommodation that seems to fall right in the middle between reasonable and unreasonable. A Muslim truck driver has been fired because he refused to drive any truck that carried alcohol or tobacco (Religion Clause also has the story), which are prohibited under his religion. He refused to drive a truck that contained these things, and was fired.

His complaint argues that less than 5% of the products transported by the trucking company contain alcohol or tobacco, it’s easy to determine the contents of each truck, and those jobs could easily be transferred to other drivers who have no such religious objection. If all of this is true, this seems to be a decent case of religious discrimination.

So, why is this news? Well, part of it is probably the recent wave of anti-Muslim hysteria we’ve seen across the country, by a (hopefully) very small, but very loud, minority of Americans. I predict that when news of this case reaches them, there will be much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, notwithstanding the fact that if this driver were a Mormon or a particularly conservative Protestant with the same objections, this would probably be a non-story.

However, there are a few questions left unanswered. For example, are the alcohol and tobacco products only transported in trucks that contain nothing else, or is that 5% spread across many different loads? If the latter is the case, the defendant could at least argue that there aren’t that many trucks in its fleet that don’t carry any alcohol and tobacco.

Also, some commenters in the stories I linked to note that, while alcohol is clearly prohibited under Islam, the religion is far more lenient with regards to tobacco, and, therefore, his religion doesn’t really prohibit him from transporting tobacco.

It’s possible that the defendant will argue this, but I think, properly, it’s a losing argument. All that matters in cases like this is if the plaintiff’s beliefs are sincerely held, and religious in nature. It’s not up to secular courts to tell a person what their religion really says. After all, there are countless different opinions on what it means to be a Christian, and what Christianity requires. Why should any other religion with a large following be different?

Whatever happens in this case, it is, on its face, a fairly unremarkable religious discrimination lawsuit. It moves slightly into a legal gray area, which is always interesting, but a court should have no problem reaching a sound decision once it gets all the facts. So, why is it getting any coverage?

I think this case is illustrative of how the political climate can affect the legal system. Sadly, it seems that the country is currently going through a phase of increased nativism and xenophobia that many countries seem to experience every few decades, and which seem to coincide with economic downturns.

Muslims just happen to be in the crosshairs this time. In the past it’s been the Chinese, the Irish, and many other groups. While the current antipathy towards Muslims (again, which I suspect, and hope, is concentrated in a small but loud minority of Americans) is not mentioned in any of these stories that I can find, the mere fact that this is a story is probably instructive. Some of these anti-Muslim fanatics even openly question whether or not Islam is really a religion, and therefore covered by the constitutional right to free exercise of religion, and statutory protections against religious discrimination in employment.

However, I hope that the court in this case will be able to put all of this aside, and decide this case purely on its merits. After all, there’s nothing in current American jurisprudence to suggest that, from a legal standpoint, Islam is different from any other religion when it comes to protection against religious discrimination, and the constitutional right to free exercise of religion. Hopefully, everyone in the country will grasp this fact if and when the court decides in this employee’s favor.

In any case, it will almost certainly happen after the midterm elections, so maybe nobody will care by then.

Ken LaMance

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