Rosary BeadsA nursing home activities aide who was fired for refusing to pray the Rosary with a resident failed to prove job bias because she didn’t present sufficient evidence that her employer, Woodland Village Nursing Center Inc., knew before it decided to discharge her that plaintiff’s refusal to pray the rosary was based on her religious beliefs (Nobach v Woodland (2015)). As a result, a $69,584 jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was reversed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Employee Refuses to Read the Rosary Because it Conflicts with Her Religion

The plaintiff former employee had worked for Woodland just over a year before being told that she was fired for refusing to read the Rosary to a resident. This incident arose after a resident complained to Woodland management when no one prayed the rosary with her that day. Following an investigation, management decided to fire plaintiff.

Plaintiff filed her religious discrimination claim under Title VII. This federal employment statute makes it unlawful, among other areas, for an employer to discharge an individual “because of such individual’s . . . religion.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). In obtaining the jury verdict, the plaintiff pointed to the following to support her claim:

  • When asked to read the Rosary, plaintiff told a co-worker, who didn’t have any supervisory authority over plaintiff, “I’m not Catholic, and it’s against my religion.”
  • She was fired for not praying the Rosary with a resident;
  • Her supervisor said in regard to the Rosary incident, “I don’t care if it’s your fifth write-up or not. I would have fired you for this instance alone. I don’t care if it is against your religion or not. If you don’t do it, it’s insubordination.”

Procedural Background

On Appeal, the Court held the jury was mistaken in awarding the verdict as there was no evidence that Woodland was motivated by plaintiff’s religious beliefs before it discharged her.

The plaintiff then petitioned and was granted a rare ruling from the Supreme Court, which vacated and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores Inc., (2015). In that case, the Supreme Court Justices held that actual knowledge by an employer of a conflict between a worker’s religious practice and job requirements isn’t required to prove a failure to accommodate under Title VII’s religious discrimination provision.

But in applying the Abercrombie decision, the Court of Appeals still reached the same result favoring the employer as its earlier decision. In doing so, it reasoned that under the Abercrombie decision:

When evaluating causation in a Title VII case, the question is not what the employer knew about the employee’s religious beliefs. Nor is the question whether the employer knew that there would be a conflict between the employee’s religious belief and some job duty. Instead, the critical question is what motivated the employer’s employment decision … We simply cannot find evidence that, before her discharge, [Plaimtiff] ever advised anyone involved in her discharge that praying the Rosary was against her religion.

(internal citations omitted).

Applying this spin, the Court of Appeals, found that unlike the Muslim employee in Abercrombie who was denied an offer after wearing a religious head scarf to her job interview, the plaintiff aid worker couldn’t show any Woodland decision maker came to know of or suspect her religious objection to praying the rosary before she was told she was fired.

The Take-Away

This decision did not sit well with me for a number of reasons. First, this was a jury trial; Whether you agree or disagree with a jury verdict, its determination must generally be given great deference, especially when it comes to evaluating evidence and witness credibility. But the Court of Appeals, concluded that “no reasonable jury” could have reached this decision and, therefore, it set aside that decision.

Second the employer in this case all but admitted that plaintiff’s failure to perform the Rosary was the reason – if not a factor – that precipitated her discharge. Returning to the Abercrombie case, the Justices held that actual knowledge was not required to prove a violation under Title VII’s religious discrimination noting:

… an applicant need show only that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision, not that the employer had knowledge of his need …Thus, rather than imposing a knowledge standard [Title VII] prohibits certain motives, regardless of the state of the actor’s knowledge: An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions. Title VII contains no knowledge requirement.

Yet, the Court of Appeal concluded that there was “no evidence” that the plaintiff advised anyone involved in her discharge that praying the Rosary was against her religion. In reaching this decision, however, the Court completely ignores the Abercrombie case and the fact that the Rosary is a quintessential and inherent religious observance of the Catholic Church.

Third and building on the preceding point, the Court of Appeals noted that the evidence showed the employer conducted an “investigation” into the incident prior to terminating plaintiff. The scope of that investigation, however, appears to be extremely superficial; There is no mention that plaintiff or her co-worker were interviewed. In fact, it is not even clear plaintiff knew she was being investigated.  With this in mind, the Court of Appeals seems to give the green light to employers to conduct a superficial and limited investigation designed to avoid learning fundamental facts in order to insulate an adverse employment decision from becoming unlawful discrimination. Conversely, the Court sends the message that employees who refuse to practice/observe a core religious function at work to expressly make a declaration to management that the refusal is based on one’s religious beliefs in order to be protected under Title VII.

For more information about complying with Title VII’s anti-religious discrimination provisions, as well as accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs, contact Michigan employment attorney, Jason Shinn.