Former Elite Employee’s Claims of Religious Discrimination Are Dismissed After Finding That The Purported Religious Conduct Was Discriminatory

Yarelyn Mena

On December 2, 2015, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted summary judgment to Defendant Elite Protection and Security, Ltd. (Elite), dismissing Plaintiff David Schwingel’s religious discrimination claim against Elite. Elite terminated Mr. Schwingel after he placed a “Men only” sign on a chair he built and then harassed a female co-worker for sitting on the chair. Mr. Schwingel claimed that his termination was due to him being a Messianic Jew.

Since 2010, Mr. Schwingel worked for Elite as a security cargo screener at the O’Hare International Airport in Illinois. During his employment, Mr. Schwingel requested a religious accommodation to work Monday through Friday—unlike most other employees in his position, who worked Tuesday through Saturday—in order to have the Jewish Sabbath day, Saturday, off. Elite granted the request. On May 14, 2011, Elite removed all of the chairs from the security screening stations at its facility, as the cargo screeners did not need the chairs to perform their job functions. For reasons unknown, Mr. Schwingel erroneously believed that Elite removed the chairs because they had been stained from women’s menstruations; he viewed the chairs’ removal as related to Biblical passages concerning the separation of the sexes during a woman’s menstrual cycle. Mr. Schwingel shared his beliefs with one coworker and asked a supervisor for permission to use one of the chairs, but Elite denied his request. In response, he built his own chair from materials in the garbage and attached a cardboard sign to it on which he handwrote:

Men only. No women are to sit here during the days of their monthly cycle. Whoever touches the bed of a women [sic] during her impurity or anything she sat on must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be regarded as unclean until evening.

On May 24, 2011, an Elite employee, Melody Russell, sat on Mr. Schwingel’s chair. Upon noticing, Mr. Schwingel told Ms. Russell to read the sign. Ms. Russell told Mr. Schwingel to leave her alone and that she would report gender-based discrimination to a supervisor. Mr. Schwingel continued to harass Ms. Russell, telling her that “women are defiled by God under the Mosaic Law” and that “all women are unnaturally clean because of menstruation and that [women] can never be trusted to honestly disclose whether or not [they] are menstruating.” Ms. Russell reported the discrimination to Elite’s president, Bill Snyder. Elite investigated her complaint, interviewing other employees along with Mr. Schwingel, who admitted to making the sign and the offending statements to Ms. Russell. Elite’s investigation concluded that Mr. Schwingel’s conduct towards Ms. Russell was motivated by her gender, disrupted the workplace, and violated Elite’s employee handbook. As such, Elite terminated Mr. Schwingel’s employment. In response, Mr. Schwingel filed his suit against Elite pro se.

In evaluating Mr. Schwingel’s wrongful termination claim, the court considered whether a rational jury could find that Elite terminated Mr. Schwingel based on his religion. The court found that Mr. Schwingel created an offensive environment and could not show that Elite applied its facially neutral, no tolerance discrimination policies differently to him because of his religion. Moreover, any claims against Elite for failure to accommodate would fail because Elite is not required to accommodate Mr. Schwingel’s religion by allowing him to offend other employees. Additionally, the court noted that when Mr. Schwingel did request an accommodation to not work on the Sabbath, Elite granted it. As such, the court granted Elite summary judgment on all claims and dismissed the complaint.

Although religious practices are protected by the law, it is important for employees to know that any action that is disruptive and offensive to other employees might not be protected.

If you believe you have been discriminated against based on your religion, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.