The Safety Sticker of the Beast

Here’s what is alleged in the Complaint in Hyatt v. Berry Plastics Corp. (N.D. Ga. filed Nov. 8, 2011) — recall that these are just the plaintiff’s allegations:

1. Hyatt’s employer kept a safety calendar that marked the number of consecutive days that the workplace was accident-free. Employees were required “to write the number off of the safety calendar onto a sticker and are to wear the sticker throughout the work shift” (I’m quoting the Complaint here).

2. “As the number of safely worked days crept into the range of the 600’s, Plaintiff began discussing with his co-workers and supervisors that he could not wear the number 666 as this number was the sign of the beast and his religious beliefs forbid him from wearing this number. Plaintiff sincerely believed that wearing a sticker with the number ‘666’ on it would be abandoning his beliefs and his God, and would subject Plaintiff to damnation and would force Plaintiff to abandon his religious beliefs.”

3. Plaintiff asked a manager for a religious accommodation on day 666, but the manager allegedly responded that “Mr. Hyatt’s beliefs were ridiculous, and that Mr. Hyatt could go to work with a ‘666’ on his safety sticker or face a three (3) day suspension.” Plaintiff decided to take the three-day suspension, but was then fired for refusing to work on day 666.

Plaintiff is now suing, claiming the employer violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by refusing to reasonably accommodate his beliefs, and retaliated against plaintiff for asserting his rights.

If plaintiff’s account of the facts is accurate and complete, then he ought to win under the law. I discuss the relevant legal regime here, but the basic principle is that 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). The “undue hardship” standard isn’t hard for the employer to meet — any “more than … de minimis cost” to the employer would qualify as an undue hardship. But here the only cost was letting plaintiff not wear the sticker for one day, something that was highly unlikely to impose any more than de minimis cost on the employer. (To be sure, dealing with individual exemption requests always involves some cost, just in processing the request and deciding whether to grant it, but such a cost obviously isn’t enough to warrant denying requests, or else the statutory duty of religious accommodation would never be triggered.)

Indeed, courts have commonly found that employers must give religious exemptions from dress code or grooming requirements, unless this would interfere with safety or with the public mission of the employer (such as a police department that requires uniforms). Thus, for instance, a man who feels a religious obligation to wear a beard is generally entitled to an exemption from an employer’s no-beard policy, absent some evidence that such an exemption would pose an undue hardship on the employer. See, e.g., Carter v. Bruce Oakley, Inc., 849 F. Supp. 673 (E.D. Ark. 1993). A woman who feels a religious obligation not to wear pants is likewise generally entitled to such an exemption, again unless there’s some good reason (such as safety) for barring her from wearing a skirt or a dress. The same principle should apply to this case.

One can debate whether it’s good policy to require private employers to give employees special religious exemptions (or conscientious examples motivated by deeply held secular philosophical beliefs, which the EEOC and many courts have held are likewise covered by the religious accommodation requirement). But that’s the law, and under the law the Beast-phobic are entitled to an exemption, regardless of how “ridiculous” their beliefs might seem to others.

UPDATE: Let’s not forget the zip code of the beast and many other similar items.

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