Does Trucking Company Have a Legal Duty to Accommodate Muslim Employee’s Religious Objections to Transporting Alcohol or Tobacco?

That’s the argument made in Reddy v. Schneider National, Inc. (E.D. Pa. filed Oct. 15, 2010). Vasant Reddy says that he has “a sincerely held religious belief that he cannot consume, possess, or transport alcohol or tobacco,” and that he informed Schneider National of this. He also says that “less than 5% of the loads Defendant transported contained alcohol and/or tobacco,” which means that it would not have been an “undue hardship” for Schneider to accommodate him. Nonetheless, he says, he was ordered to transport a load with alcohol, and was fired because he refused to transport it. (See the Philadelphia Inquirer for more.)

As I’ve argued before, there’s nothing legally novel about most religious accommodation demands from Muslims. They are in many ways quite similar to such demands brought by adherents to other religions, and under well-established American religious accommodation law some such demands must be accommodated and others need not be. I summarize some of the general rules imposed by federal religious accommodation law here, but the brief summary is this: An employer must give religious employees special exemptions from generally applicable job requirements if (1) the requirements interfere with an employee’s sincerely felt religious obligations and (2) such an exemption doesn’t impose “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j); TWA v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977).

It seems likely that Reddy satisfies element 1 of the test; whether he satisfies element 2 depends on how costly it is for the employer to accommodate him. Even a modest cost might be seen as an “undue hardship” on the employer, but if the cost is very slight — perhaps because indeed there are very few loads that contain alcohol or tobacco, and those loads could easily be parceled out to others without substantial expense or substantial unfairness to Reddy’s coworkers — then the employer could be liable for failing to accommodate Reddy.

The careful reader might recognize that Reddy’s objection is in some ways similar to the county clerk’s religious objection to processing same-sex domestic partnership applications; I blogged earlier this month about a district court’s decision to let the county clerk’s case go forward. Moreover, it’s pretty well-established that Title VII does apply to religious exemptions to behavior that is a small part of one’s duties. See, e.g., Tramm v. Porter Mem’l Hosp., No. H 87-355, 1989 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16391, at *33 (N.D. Ind. Dec. 22, 1989) (concluding that a hospital had to reasonably accommodate a nurse who objected to cleaning instruments that had been and would be used in abortions, applying Title VII and the Free Exercise Clause); American Postal Workers Union v. Postmaster Gen., 781 F.2d 772, 777 (9th Cir. 1986) (concluding that government employer had a duty to reasonably accommodate, by arranging transfers to other jobs, postal workers who had a religious objection to processing draft registration forms); Best v. California Apprenticeship Council, 207 Cal. Rptr. 863, 868 (Ct. App. 1984) (concluding that an apprentice training organization — which was treated by state law as an employer — had an obligation to accommodate an apprentice’s religious objection to working in a nuclear power plant); and other cases cited in this footnote. In each such case under Title VII, of course, the employee would have to show that exempting him from the religiously objectionable duties would not be an undue hardship on the employer.

Maybe it’s bad for federal law to impose such an obligation on employers, whether because the law is too vague, imposes unduly on private employers, imposes unduly on coworkers, gives an undue preference to conscientious objectors (it has been interpreted to apply to nonreligious conscientious objectors as well as religious ones), or something else. But it does impose such an obligation, and provides a valuable benefit to religious objectors. Muslims are no more and no less entitled to this benefit than are Christians, Jews, or others.

Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.

UPDATE: To answer a question that came up in the comments:

1. A claimant who is demanding a religious exemption may prevail even if his view is not shared by most coreligionists. Small sects, and even idiosyncratic religious believers, are as protected as large sects: This flows in part from the multiplicity of American Christian denominations; from the sense that discrimination among denominations is wrong; from the reality of religious disagreement even within denominations (something majority-Protestant nations have long been familiar with); and from the courts’ sensible conclusion that secular courts can’t judge which group within one denomination has the better view of the denomination’s “true beliefs.” Thus, consider the Supreme Court’s opinion in Thomas v. Review Bd., where a Jehovah’s Witness’s exemption claim was based on his objection to working in war production:

The [lower] court also appears to have given significant weight to the fact that another Jehovah’s Witness had no scruples about working on tank turrets; for that other Witness, at least, such work was “scripturally” acceptable. Intrafaith differences of that kind are not uncommon among followers of a particular creed, and the judicial process is singularly ill equipped to resolve such differences ….. [Protection] is not limited to beliefs which are shared by all of the members of a religious sect…. [I]t is not within the judicial function and judicial competence to inquire whether the petitioner or his fellow worker more correctly perceived the commands of their common faith. Courts are not arbiters of scriptural interpretation.

Or, from Frazee v. Illinois Emp. Sec. Dep’t, another case involving a Christian claimant: “[W]e reject the notion that to claim the protection of the Free Exercise Clause, one must be responding to the commands of a particular religious organization.”

2. A claimant may prevail even if his belief seems unreasonable, logically inconsistent, or contradicted by his own religion’s scriptures: This too the Supreme Court held in Thomas, against the backdrop of the history of deep disputes within Christianity itself:

[A religious-exemption case] is not to turn upon a judicial perception of the particular belief or practice in question; religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others …. The [lower] court found [claimant’s willingness to help produce steel, even when it is a raw product to be used in arms, but not tank turrets] inconsistent with Thomas’ stated opposition to participation in the production of armaments. But … Thomas drew a line, and it is not for us to say that the line he drew was an unreasonable one.

3. A claimant may prevail only if his beliefs are sincerely held: If a court concludes that the claimant is lying about his beliefs, then his claim will be rejected. And courts may often want to scrutinize a claimant’s sincerity when his beliefs seem to coincide neatly with his secular interests, especially secular financial interests. But the exemption claim here likely involves little incentive for insincerity. It may be that the claim should be rejected because it would be too burdensome on the employer, but there’s little reason in this case to doubt the claimant’s sincerity.