David Wise, a worker at a Firestone facility in North Carolina, will be forced to chose between his faith and his job under an important ruling from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. A member of the the Living Church of God, Wise is required to take a greater number of days off than most employees and sued when he was terminated for these practices as violative of his religious rights. The Court ruled against him and held that Firestone could refuse to accommodate such religious practices.
As a “lab floater,” Wise was able to work around his religious holidays until a restructuring in the company made it impossible. The Living Church of God has some pretty decent holidays, according to the court:
His religion prohibits him from working during the faith’s weekly Sabbath, which takes place from sundownon Friday to sundown on Saturday. In addition, Wise must observe,and therefore cannot work on, seven sets of religious holidays. The holidays, which are based on certain biblical Holy Days, are Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Day of Pentecost, the Feast ofTrumpets, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the Last Great Day. These holidays typically total twenty days, including fourteen that do not already coincide with part of the weekly Sabbath.
With the restructuring, Wise tried to work it out with his immediate supervisor, Kevin Cash. (That’s right, Mr. Wise worked for Mr. Cash).Mr Cash could not make it work and Wise was fired.
The opinion is an interesting statutory interpretation exercise, relying on plain meaning of the statute and congressional intent in the use of the word “reasonable.”
Appellants contend, as they did before the district court, that anemployer provides a reasonable accommodation only when it “elimi-nate[s] the conflict between the religious practice and the work requirement.” Brief of Appellant at 26. Put another way, appellants argue that Title VII requires an employer, absent undue hardship, tototally accommodate an employee’s religious observances. This would essentially limit the Title VII analysis to whether an employer’s failure to provide total accommodation was based on undue hardship.
For the reasons that follow, we cannot accept appellants’ interpre-tation of § 2000e(j) and hold that “reasonably accommodate” means what it says: reasonably accommodate. The problem with appellants’ “total” accommodation interpretationis that such a construction ignores the plain text of the statute, namelythe inclusion of the word “reasonably” as a modifier of accommodate. If Congress had wanted to require employers to provide complete accommodation absent undue hardship, it could easily have done so.
For instance, Congress could have used the words “totally” or “completely,” instead of “reasonably.” It even could have left out any qualifying adjective at all. Rather, Congress included the term reasonably,expressly declaring that an employer’s obligation is to “reasonably accommodate” absent undue hardship — not to totally do so.
It could be a ruling that is not only appealed to the Supreme Court but raised in Congress, where members have sought to demand accommodations for religious practices on various levels in the last ten years. This may put some members in a bind between religious right advocates and business interests in Congress
.For a copy of the Wise opinion (no pun intended), click here