Religious exemptions from work have a limit

ExpressJet flight attendant Charee Stanley recently filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after being suspended for a year without pay following a co-worker’s complaint about having to assume one of her duties. Stanley, an observant Muslim, had previously approached her supervisor and said she could not serve alcohol because of her religious beliefs. According to Stanley, the supervisor told her that her needs could be accommodated by working out an arrangement with the other flight attendant on duty. However, ExpressJet has since retracted the agreement after the colleague’s complaint. 

Stanley’s story gained attention only days after Kim Davis, the clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, made national headlines for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses following the June 26 legalization of such unions by the U.S. Supreme Court. Davis, an Apostolic Christian, claimed to be working under “God’s authority.” She was jailed for contempt of court on Sept. 3 but was later released.

Both cases raise the question, “Should religious convictions relieve employees of tasks that are part of their job description?”

Religious exemption cases are not unusual. In 2013, a Muslim teenager was fired from her job at Abercrombie & Fitch for refusing to remove her headscarf at work, and in 2009 another teenager was denied a job at the company for not taking off her hijab during the interview process. A Jehovah’s Witness in Guam was fired in 2011 after he said raising an American flag violated his religious beliefs.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of religious belief and/or observance. The law requires employers to accommodate employees “unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Accommodating to religious dress or holidays is almost never seen as an undue burden. However, exempting people from particular tasks is a hard concept for lay people to understand, though it is no less worthy of accommodation. The key questions are whether the task is a core responsibility and how burdensome the accommodation is to the employer.

Both Stanley and Davis claim the right to an exemption under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

“Our history is filled with accommodations for people’s religious freedom and conscience,” Davis said in a Sept. 1 statement published by her lawyers. “I want to continue to perform my duties, but I also am requesting what our Founders envisioned—that conscience and religious freedom would be protected. That is all I am asking.”

The vital difference between the cases of Stanley and Davis is who employs them. As a flight attendant for ExpressJet, Stanley’s primary duty isn’t to serve alcohol to passengers. She could easily serve soft drinks while another flight attendant served alcohol.

Conversely, Davis is a civil servant. The National Association of Counties outlines four major duties of a county clerk, one of which comprises “miscellaneous duties including those of notary public, administration of oaths, certification of acknowledgments, declarations, instruments and protests.”

Issuing marriage licenses that are valid according to state and federal law is a central aspect of Davis’s job. After the Supreme Court’s decision, same-sex marriage was recognized as a right of all U.S. citizens. By refusing to issue licenses and obstructing her employees from issuing them, she is depriving lesbians and gays of the right to marry and unconstitutionally introduces religion into government.

As a government employee, Davis should honor and uphold the law. Despite her claims, she isn’t answerable to God at work. She is answerable to the residents of Rowan County, whose rights are determined through legislation and democratic process, not religion. When the religious beliefs of private sector employees make it uncomfortable or impossible for them to complete a task at work, they should work with the employer to find a solution. However, when government employees limit citizens’ rights based on their own personal religious beliefs, it is time to find a new line of work.