A recent federal appeals court ruling has reiterated the rights of employees when it comes to their religious beliefs — in this case, the “mark of the beast.”
Beverly R. Butcher worked for 37 years as a coal miner in West Virginia at a mine owned by Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy. In 2012, Consol installed a biometric hand scanner to track employees’ comings and goings. Butcher, a lifelong evangelical Christian, objected to use of the hand scanner. His reason? He believed that using the hand scanner would leave him branded with the mark of the beast, allowing him to be manipulated by the Antichrist.
Consol did not accommodate Butcher. Instead, the company provided him with its own interpretation of the Scriptures. In a letter to Butcher, Consol explained that because the mark of the beast is associated only with the right hand or the forehead, use of the left hand in the scanner would leave him “markless,” so to speak.
Butcher retired under protest, choosing his religious belief over his job. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought suit on behalf of Butcher. In 2015, a jury awarded Butcher nearly $600,000 in damages. Consol appealed. In a unanimous June 2017 decision, which has implications for employers in Florida and throughout the U.S., the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the jury’s verdict and issued a terse reminder to employers about what to do when an employee raises a religious objection to an employment practice.
While many would not believe this is possible, this is what happens when employers are inconsistent, and take matters into their own hands. The court’s decision can be attributed to several reasons:
First, at the same time Consol was telling Butcher it couldn’t provide him an accommodation, it was already accommodating two other employees who could not use the hand scanner due to hand injuries. Those employees were allowed to enter their personnel numbers on a keypad attached to the system. Consol’s own witness even testified that the accommodation imposed no additional cost or burden on the company, and allowing Butcher to use the keypad procedure would have been similarly cost-free. Bad move.
Second, Consol made the mistake of claiming that Butcher’s understanding of how the “mark of the beast” worked was wrong, so its refusal to accommodate him was not in conflict with his religious belief. Another mistake. Through his letter to Consol and his testimony at trial, Butcher carefully and clearly laid out his religious objection to use of the scanner system, notwithstanding the fact that it would produce no physical mark.
The court held that there was ample evidence from which a jury could conclude that Butcher sincerely believed “participation in this system”— with or without a tangible mark — “was a showing of allegiance to the Antichrist,” inconsistent with his deepest religious convictions. That is all that is required to establish the requisite conflict between Butcher’s religious beliefs and Consol’s insistence that he use its scanner system.
Consol’s point was that while Butcher’s religious beliefs may have been sincere, they were mistaken. Consol even went so far as to open up its oral argument before the appeals court by quoting Scripture, which it claimed shows that the “mark of the beast” can be imprinted only on the right hand. Yet another mistake.
So how can an employer avoid what happened to Consol?
Make sure your accommodations are consistent. If you’re providing injured persons the same accommodation sought by someone else, but for religious reasons, as long as it’s not an undue burden, the safest course is to provide the accommodation.
Don’t challenge the correct interpretation of someone’s religious belief. As an employer, it is not your place to question the correctness or even the plausibility of an employee’s religious understandings. So long as there is sufficient evidence that the beliefs are sincerely held, that’s generally the end of the matter as to whether there is a bona fide belief.
Even the most outrageous claim may have merit. Always make sure to fully investigate claims; don’t outright dismiss employee requests; and when in doubt, always make sure to consult local labor and employment counsel.
Michael Elkins is a partner and co-chair of the litigation practice group, based in Miami, for the national law firm Bryant Miller Olive P.A. On Instagram: @melkins1 and on Twitter @melkins31175.