Fourth Circuit Holds that Employer’s Failure to Accommodate a Religious Employee Constitutes Clear Title VII Violation

Harrison Paige

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Consol Energy, Inc., a jury found that Consol Energy, Inc., violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) by constructively discharging Beverly Butcher, Jr., after he requested a religious accommodation related to his use of Consol’s new biometric scanning technology. Consol filed post-verdict motions, all of which were denied, then appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The Fourth Circuit found in favor of Butcher, finding no fault in the logic or judgment of either the jury or the West Virginia district court.

Butcher worked for Consol for almost 40 years before the company implemented a biometric hand scanner, intended to help the company more efficiently track its employees’ hours worked. Butcher, who is a devout evangelical Christian, was uncomfortable with the new system because he subscribes to a literal interpretation of the authority of biblical scriptures. Butcher explained to Consol that his adherence to the Book of Revelation’s verses regarding the “Mark of the Beast” prohibits him from using a biometric hand scanner because—although the scanner does not imprint any physical mark on the individual using it—using the scanner would nonetheless mark Butcher as a supporter of the Antichrist. Butcher requested a religious accommodation from Consol after the system was implemented, writing a detailed letter that cited Bible verses and explained why he was not comfortable using the scanner. Consol refused Butcher’s request and required him to obtain a letter from his church supporting the requested accommodation.

After Butcher’s pastor wrote the letter, Consol still failed to provide an adequate accommodation. Instead, Consol offered to allow Butcher to use his left hand for the scan rather than his right, as the Book of Revelation states that the right hand or the forehead is where the Mark of the Beast would be placed; therefore, using one’s left hand would, theoretically, bypass the problem. After deliberating and “pray[ing] very hard,” Butcher told Consol that he was ultimately still not comfortable with the system and reiterated his request not to use the scanner. However, Consol still failed to accommodate Butcher and notified him that failing to use the scanner with his left hand would result in his termination. Refusing to use the scanner, Butcher retired from Consol under protest and filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), who then brought suit on his behalf.

At trial, Consol did not dispute the sincerity of Butcher’s religious convictions. Rather, the core of Consol’s argument was that the EEOC failed to adequately demonstrate that using the scanner violated Butcher’s religious beliefs, since Consol did offer to allow Butcher to use his left hand to scan and Butcher’s religious beliefs surrounding the Mark of the Beast have to do with the right hand and forehead, according to biblical scripture. As such, Consol argued that it did not fail to reasonably accommodate Butcher, as no accommodation was actually necessary as long as Butcher used his left hand.

Both the district court and the Fourth Circuit disagreed with this understanding. They pointed to Butcher’s extensive testimony regarding the importance of his beliefs and the fact that those beliefs included the notion that using the biometric scanner would associate Butcher with the Antichrist, regardless of what hand was used and regardless of the fact that no physical mark would be left on Butcher’s hand. The Fourth Circuit explained that it was not within a court’s jurisdiction to determine the validity or sincerity of Butcher’s religious beliefs. Instead, courts must rule on the law: “It is not Consol’s place as an employer, nor ours as a court, to question the correctness or even the plausibility of Butcher’s religious understandings.”

Furthermore, the court noted, Consol had every capability to accommodate Butcher, considering that it “had provided precisely the same accommodation to two other employees who needed it for non-religious reasons.” Those two employees had hand injuries that prevented them from using the scanner, so Consol allowed them to use a keypad to manually enter their employee identification number when clocking in or out of work, rather than using the hand scanner. However, the company did not offer this alternative to Butcher as an accommodation for his religious beliefs.

In light of this, the court held that there was no reason to question the jury verdict and that Consol’s failure to accommodate Butcher supported an inference of religious discrimination. As Title VII’s religious accommodation provision clearly states that failing to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs is unlawful, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding, finding that Consol’s failure to provide a reasonable accommodation for Butcher violated Title VII.

If you believe that your employer has discriminated against you because of your religious beliefs, including failing to provide you with a reasonable accommodation for your religion, contact The Harman Firm, LLP, for an assessment of your claims.