Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Muslim Flight Attendant Suspended When Religious Accommodation Revoked

With Kim Davis and her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the issue of religion and religious accommodations in the workplace have been at the fore.  Late last week came the story of Charee Stanley, a flight attendant for a small airline, ExpressJet, who was suspended, without pay, after her religious accommodation(s) were revoked.

Stanley began working for ExpressJet about three (3) years ago and converted to Islam and the Muslim faith about two (2) years ago.  Only recently did Stanley learn that her religion prohibits her from consuming and serving alcohol.  Thus, Stanley sought a religious accommodation with ExpressJet, which was granted.  Her supervisor at ExpressJet then told her to work out an arrangement for someone to fulfill passenger requests for alcohol, which she did.  This arrangement worked out quite well for several months until one of her coworkers filed a complaint against Stanley claiming she was not fulfilling her duties by refusing to serve alcohol. The employee complaint also said Stanley had a book with "foreign writings" and wore a headdress.  ExpressJet then revoked Stanley's religious accommodation and placed her on unpaid administrative leave, for some reason.

Title VII and Religious Accommodations

As taken from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's website on religious discrimination, the law requires an employer or other covered entity to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer's business. This means an employer may be required to make reasonable adjustments to the work environment that will allow an employee to practice his or her religion.
Examples of some common religious accommodations include flexible scheduling, voluntary shift substitutions or swaps, job reassignments, and modifications to workplace policies or practices.

An employer does not have to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices if doing so would cause undue hardship to the employer. An accommodation may cause undue hardship if it is costly, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.

What all of this means, essentially, is that employer's are required to accommodate an employee's religion, unless doing so creates an undue hardship and it cannot cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer's business.  What works against ExpressJet in this case is the fact they had granted Stanley's accommodation and it appears to have not created any undue hardship and to have been de minimis and was only revoked in response to a coworker's complaint.  What ExpressJet will have to argue is that the accommodation was serving as an undue hardship, which may or may not be easy to do--it will depend on the unique and particular facts.

Many have and will argue that Stanley ought to take another job or that she is being unfair in suddenly requiring an accommodation in the middle of employment.  However, the law does not require an employee to have to choose between their religion and their job IF the employer can reasonably accommodate the position and that is precisely the focus of the charge Stanley has filed and which her attorney is fighting.  Should Stanley lose this charge or subsequent lawsuit, then she will probably have to choose between serving alcohol or taking another position.  But, for now, she is making a valid argument that ExpressJet can accommodate her religion so that she may continue to serve as a flight attendant.  (I have a hunch the case will settle).

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