Good for Plaintiff, but Probably an Aberration: Fifth Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment in Case of Religious Discrimination by Employer

On August 26, 2014, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a grant of summary judgment by the Houston, TX District Court in the case Lois M Davis v. Fort Bend County. The District Court had dismissed both of the plaintiff’s claims. The dismissal of the second claim, retaliation for a complaint of sexual harassment, was affirmed by the appeals court, but the first claim of religious discrimination was reversed.

In her complaint, plaintiff Davis alleges that her employment as an IT Technician for Fort Bend County for two unlawful reasons: first, in retaliation for bringing a sexual harassment complaint against her supervisor to human resources, and eventually the Texas Workforce Commission Civil Rights Division (TWCCD); second, as punishment for being unwilling to work, setting up computers and such, on the specific day that her office was being relocated to a different building. Her reason for being unwilling to work that day was that she had previously committed to attend a “community service event” for her church, at which she was a an avid and active member, on that specific Sunday.

She argues that, because attending this event was part of her religious practice, and because she was terminated for being unavailable for work on that day, her employer discriminated against her on the basis of her religion. The District Court found that the plaintiff failed to state a prima facie case for religious discrimination, for two reasons: (i) “being an avid and active member of a church does not elevate every activity associated with that church into a legally protectable religious practice;” and in this case the plaintiff’s absence from work was “due to personal commitment, not religious conviction,” and (ii) Fort Bend County’s “undue hardship” argument–that the absence of any one employee would have required the other employees to assume a disproportionate workload, that for this reason none could be permitted to miss work that day, and that there was therefore a sufficient non-discriminatory reason for her termination.

The Appeals Court majority rejected both of these reasons. As to (i), they noted that the question of whether a certain activity constitutes part of a person’s religious practice “in his own scheme of things” depends on whether it is that person’s “sincere and meaningful belief.” But whether a belief is central to the person’s religion, i.e. whether the belief is a true religious tenet, is “not open to question.” Thus, the Court seems to conclude, the relevant question is whether attending the event in question was part of the plaintiff’s religious practice, believes it was, and the Court has no choice but to defer to that belief. Thus, she was terminated for practicing her religion.

As to (ii), the Appeals Court noted that the District Court had ignored a key fact: that one of Davis’s co-workers had offered to fill in for her, which would have stopped her absence from causing any hardship at all. Because her supervisor chose not to allow this other person to fill in, any hardship caused by her absence was due to his decision not to allow her to attend the church event.

Thus, they concluded, the District Court’s decision was in error; the plaintiff’s case is viable and raises genuine issues of fact.

But this is one of those cases wherein the dissenting judge makes a stronger argument than the majority. First, perhaps Davis believed that attending the church event was part of her religious practice, and perhaps she believed this sincerely, but that is not really the issue. In fact, there are two separate questions here: first, did she sincerely believe her religion, and second, was the event in fact part of her religious practice? The question is not whether the person’s affirmative answer to the second question is sincere; that is a factual question that a court can decide. And this makes sense: we do not want people to be able to create a discrimination claim simply by thinking up religious reasons for the things they want to do. Courts have indeed held that there must be some objectivity to this question, then, and Judge Smith in his dissent points out that “no circuit has held has held–in a published or unpublished opinion–as the majority does today.”

We vigorously argue against religious discrimination in the workplace, of course, but in order to do this we must have standards for deciding which activities do or do not constitute religious practices.

If you believe you have been the subject of religious discrimination by your employer, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.