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You be the judge . . .

An Activity Aide at a nursing home transferred a resident back to the resident’s room. A non-supervisory Nursing Assistant then told the Activity Aide that the resident wanted the Rosary read to her. The Activity Aide refused and explained to the Nursing Assistant that reading the Rosary was against her religion. Consequently, nobody read the Rosary to the nursing home resident, and the resident complained to the Activity Aide’s supervisor.

Five days later, the Activity Aide’s supervisor terminated the Activity Aide. When the Activity Aide asked why, the supervisor explained that the Activity Aide had refused to read the Rosary to a resident. At that point, the Activity Aide told her supervisor for the first time, “well, I can’t pray the Rosary. It’s against my religion.” The supervisor responded, “I don’t care if it is against your religion or not. If you don’t do it, it’s insubordination.”

Not surprisingly, the Activity Aide, a Jehova’s Witness, sued the nursing home for religious discrimination, under Title VII.

You’re the judge. Does she win?

If you said “yes,” then you’re in agreement with the Mississippi jury that awarded the Activity Aide nearly $70,000 in damages.

But, if you said “no,” then you’re in agreement with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that REVERSED the jury verdict and directed the trial court to enter judgment FOR THE EMPLOYER.

What happened here? How did a terminated employee end-up losing her Title VII religious discrimination claim when it was UNDISPUTED that she refused to read the Rosary BECAUSE OF HER RELIGIOUS BELIEFS?

The answer is pretty basic. Success on a Title VII disparate treatment claim depends upon proof of discriminatory INTENT. The appellate court held that those responsible for the termination decision did not find out about the Activity Aide’s religious objection until AFTER the termination decision was communicated to her. Without such knowledge, the decision could not have been based on the Activity Aide’s religion.

What is the moral of this real-life story for employers? Don’t delve too deeply into your employees’ private lives. From an employment law standpoint, some things are better left unknown – like religion and religious beliefs. Ignorance may be your savior in litigation.

As an aside, Kara S. Nickel will be presenting a “New Claim on the Horizon: Family Responsibilities Discrimination” at our Miami office on September 17th.   If you have not already done so, please register here for the in-person session or here for the webinar. We look forward to seeing you there!