There is an interesting counterpart to the Kim Davis debate over the right of people to follow their religious beliefs in the denial of services to others. A Muslim flight attendant Charee Stanley says she was suspended by ExpressJet for refusing to serve alcohol in accordance with her Islamic faith. While there are clearly significant differences between a public official using her office to impose their religious views and an employee demanding accommodation in the work place, the controversy shows the increasing conflicts occurring between religious principles and public accommodation. We have seen this conflict most vividly in the controversy over Christian and Muslim bakeries and photographers declining to service same-sex weddings. We have previously discussed (here and here and here) the growing conflicts over businesses that decline to accommodate same-sex weddings and events in a clash between anti-discrimination and free speech (and free exercise) values. Despite my support for gay rights and same-sex marriage, I have previously written that anti-discrimination laws are threatening the free exercise of religion. Yet, these cases also raise concerns over rising burdens on both customers and businesses in having to deal with a myriad of different religious objections as in the ExpressJet case.
Stanley refused to serve alcohol on flights and was suspended since that is a central part of the duties of flight attendants. She has filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Tuesday for the revocation of a reasonable religious accommodation.
Lena Masri, an attorney with Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, stated “What this case comes down to is no one should have to choose between their career and religion and it’s incumbent upon employers to provide a safe environment where employees can feel they can practice their religion freely.” However, the airline is likely to argue that this is like someone applying for a bartending job or a waitress job in a bar/restaurant and then refusing to serve drinks. The counterargument might be found in the common statement of pilots or flight stewards that their primary job is to guarantee the safety of the passengers. Thus, they could argue that the the food and drinks are optional or collateral elements to their positions.
A similar controversy has erupted in cities like Minneapolis where Muslim taxi drivers refused to take anyone carrying alcohol — a common practice at the airport with people bringing back wines or liquors. They lost in court. One could easily view Stanley’s case in the same light.
Stanley, 40, started working for ExpressJet nearly three years ago. About two years ago she converted to Islam and this year Masri said she learned her faith prohibits her from not only consuming alcohol but serving it.
Masri said that a supervisor said that she could work out an arrangement with other flight attendants to have them handle the alcohol and “this arrangement has worked beautifully and without incident.” However, one flight attendant clearly disagreed and filed a complaint that she was not fulfilling her duties and requiring other flight attendants to take up the slack. The complaint also reportedly objected to her having a book “foreign writings” and wearing a headdress. The airline ruled against Stanley and said that it would no longer accommodate her religious objections. She was placed on unpaid leave and told that she would be fired in 12 months if she did not comply with standard rules.
We recently discussed another case involving Abercrombie in which an employee insisted on wearing a headscarf despite the rule of the store for employees to fit a certain “Abercrombie look.” The case raised the right of businesses to maintain certain styles and appearances among employees. The Supreme Court ruled against the company after the !0th Circuit ruled for the company. The case specifically turned on the level of knowledge and disclosure required to trigger the protections under federal law for religious accommodation. However, many businesses are unclear now as to how far they have to accommodate such practices. Would Abercrombie be required to allow a full burka or, alternatively, ultra-orthodox clothing for a Jewish employee.
The question is how much a burden a company is expected to bear. There are a host of businesses that seek to supply a common level of services and common look among employees. Should the airline or its customers have to accommodate employees who object to handling alcohol or particular types of foods? We discussed a British stores that already allows Muslim employees to refuse to ring up purchases of pork or alcohol .
There are a wide array of such religious practices that might come into play in such circumstances. The result could be delays in service or an unacceptable burden on flight attendants who are willing to perform all of the functions of their position. Likewise, what if a majority of flight attendants then claim a no alcohol accommodation. An airline would likely be sued if it only allowed one practicing Muslim to work on any given crew. It would also be on difficult ground in demanding to know the religion and religious practices of applicants. The airline would seem on strong ground to claim that the need to serve alcohol is a bona fide occupational qualification, even if it is optional on flights. It is a standard part of service for most flights in this market.
What do you think?