Employers and courts continue to struggle with the boundaries between employees' personal religious beliefs, and issues created by those beliefs when they are applied to work functions. Earlier this month, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected religious discrimination claims from an EAP counselor who alleged that she was removed from her position in violation of her religious rights.
In Walden v. CDC, the plaintiff was a counselor for an Employee Assistance Plan providing services under contract to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A CDC employee met with the plaintiff, and sought advice with regard to problems arising from her same-sex relationship. In response, the plaintiff told the employee that she was unable to assist her due to her personal beliefs, and that she would seek to have a different counselor provide assistance.
The plaintiff then advised her supervisor of the situation, and stated that due to her Christian-based beliefs, she was unable to counsel individuals involved in homosexual relationships. She also refused the supervisor's suggestion that in the future, she justify referrals to other counselors on the basis of lack of experience with these relationship matters. The CDC employee complained to her employer, and after an investigation, the CDC exercised its discretion under the contract to have the plaintiff removed from its account. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff's employer assigned her to a different account.
The plaintiff sued the CDC, alleging constitutional and federal statutory violations. She also sued her private employer, alleging violation of Title VII's religious discrimination requirements. The Eleventh Circuit rejected all of these claims, affirming a grant of summary judgment for the defendants. In terms of the Title VII claims, the court determined that even if the plaintiff could make out a prima facie case of religious discrimination under Title VII, her claim failed because her employer provided her with an effective accommodation (transfer to a different client).
Although the plaintiff never requested this particular accommodation, and in fact stated that she did not prefer it, the employer fulfilled its legal obligation by implementing an effective accommodation of her religious beliefs. The Eleventh Circuit also said that the employer's motivations in providing the alternative position were not relevant to the legal claim.
This case demonstrates the low burden employers face when requested to accommodate religious beliefs that directly impact the ability of the employee to perform core job functions. Regardless of the sincerity of the employee's beliefs, if they result in significant interference with the employee's ability to perform the job, employers will not be required to restructure the job to avoid conflict with the employee's religious tenets. Federal courts have consistently applied these principles in a number of cases dealing with objections to non-discrimination, diversity and inclusion, and harassment policies applicable to employees' sexual orientation.