Word to the Wise: Fourth Circuit Rules that Firestone Employee Not Entitled to Extra Days Off Due to His Faith

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

11 thoughts on “Word to the Wise: Fourth Circuit Rules that Firestone Employee Not Entitled to Extra Days Off Due to His Faith”

  1. Zac,

    The era of considering the legislative history in statutory construction at the high court is OVER.

    At least as far as Justice Scalia is concerned. That has been his crusade for the last zillion years and he has been undeservedly successful….

  2. No offense. I took liberty with a bit of word-play, only, and had actually forgotten about this article.

    It seems that it would be much more ‘reasonable’ for a large company, like Firestone, to accommodate this employee’s religious observances than it would for a small business which relies on only a few employees. Obviously, that is not a choice Firestone wished to make for this man holding this position. It would be interesting to know if he was offered a different or part-time job.

    The court’s reasoning is not out of line with job fairness or Equal Opportunity guidelines affecting all workers there.

    Without knowing all the details, it’s not clear how it could have been decided differently without appearing to offer special treatment not available to others.

  3. Joudon:

    I fail to see how you are an oppressed minority in a country that is 94% religious and overwhelmingly Christian. You have public money funding your faith based initiatives, an evangelical President who mentions God more than the nation in his speeches and insists on stopping the most promising medical research for religious reasons. You also have a compliant Supreme Court who only occasionally stops us from “slouching” towards a theocracy, or completely turning our industry over to the Church. On top of that you have dozens of tax free businesses masquerading as mega-churchs and serving as incubators for all manner of hypocrites and perverts. All in all, I think you Christians have it pretty good. Must you also play the victim card? LOL

  4. I am heartsick for David Wise’s treatment by the Fourth Circuit, for he is family, being a member of a church that is an offshoot of a common mother with my own. While I share William Ferguson’s March 1 comment, I would add that we are, as Judge Bork wrote, “Slouching toward Gomorrah.” The courts increasingly favor commercial interests and the secular view against a decent respect for those of us who still revere the Creator in a manner that puts us at risk. It seems that the predictions of a (declared) “false prophet,” Herbert Armstrong, are rapidly being realized, and the last hope of human freedom of worship is rapidly disappearing into the sands of time.

    Hopefully, without sounding like a zealot, many of us are noting the attention given to intolerant evangelicals, and denied those of us who respect Oliver Wendell Holmes’ principle of the other guy’s nose. Muslims live in terror in their own land — this one — with little government protection. As a doleful Christian, I mourn for the advance of these “last days,” for I assure you, God is watching.

  5. If you think it’s a ‘frivolous’ claim, you should read Justice Marshall’s dissent in TWA v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63. It deals with the legislative history behind Title VII, which was amended specifically for this reason. “The primary purpose of the amendment, [Senator Randolph] explained, was to protect Saturday Sabbatarians like himself from employers who refuse ‘to hire or to continue in employment employees whose religious practices rigidly require them to abstain from work in the nature of hire on particular days.'”

    If this case makes it to the Supreme Court, maybe this time the Court will pay attention to Congressional intent.

  6. The weekly seventh-day Sabbath and annual festivals that he wants to observe are all listed in the Bible in Leviticus 23:1-44 of the Old Testament. Notice in verses 1-2 that they were given by God. They are still observed today by religious Jews and a few others.

    In New Testament times Jesus would go to the synagogue on the weekly Sabbath “as his custom was.” He would also go up to Jerusalem for the annual festivals like the Feast of Tabernacles, and Passover (at which time he was killed).

    The Holy Spirit came on the Day of Pentecost as described in Acts 2:1-4.

    Anyone who believes in God or the Bible should fully support this man’s cause.

  7. I grew up in a similar religion with similar beliefs. While I no longer have those beliefs, I happen to view God in a very different context now, I know the issues of conscience this man faces for what he believes to be true – I’ve been there. I grew up facing those same issues of intolerance.

    Its not whether what he believes is right or wrong theologically, or if it even makes sense, and that’s always in the eyes of the observer. We should not penalize a man for following his conscience. That seems to me to be the very essence of religious freedom in the Constitution. God knows we got enough people in this world not following their conscience. We shouldn’t punish those that do.

    Why put a decent human through a torturous choice between their faith and their very livelihood? There’s something evil in that. And it says a lot about the court who would support such a thing. But then again maybe our courts have gotten a little too used to torture in all its forms?

    I worked in airline IT departments for many years. I was told that it was impossible for me to work in that industry because of the religious holy days I used to keep.

    What I found to be true is that most reasonable employers would rather have a worker they can trust not to steal or lie (true of ANYONE sincere about their religion) and will quite willingly make allowances for a good team worker. My experiences with both USAir and Delta found them to be most accommodating to sincere religious needs, provided they were given advance notice. That is especially so if the days off are unpaid and at no expense to the company.

    Firestone is making a severe mistake. They send a message of intolerance to their employees and the public. They will lose a valuable employee over something that shouldn’t matter at all.

    The only ones who win in these cases are the lawyers. May common sense and human decency prevail. I hope he gets his job back.

  8. It’s hardly a frivolous claim. There are numerous recognized religious organizations who share those beliefs. An interesting question is, would Firestone been willing to make an accommodation if not hindered by the collective bargaining agreement and could the union have taken steps to help Mr. Wise if they desired? It appears his immediate supervisor was open to the possibility.

    I would also contrast this to the growing “family friendly” movement among employers where some classes of employees seem to get accommodations made not available to others. There may be legitimate reasons to do so but it opens similar issues of fairness.

  9. So what are we to learn, JT, that more Cash is less Wise or that
    Fire Stone was filled to the ‘Brim’, and that the Court had ‘Tired’,
    so to speak, with frivolous religious practice accommodation claims?

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