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- A North Carolina home service and repair company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when he failed to adapt and fired two employees for refusing to attend daily prayer meetings because of their religious beliefs, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleged in a lawsuit (EEOC vs. Aurora Renovations and Developments, LLC d/b/a Aurora Pro Servicesno. 22-490 (MDNC June 27, 2022)).
- Between June 2020 and January 2021, when a construction manager and a customer service representative worked for the company, the owner of Aurora Pro held mandatory daily prayer meetings, according to the lawsuit. During the meetings, which ended with a brief discussion of business matters, employees stood in a circle, while the owner and others read Bible scriptures and led employees in Christian prayer, including included prayers for underperforming employees who were identified by name, according to the lawsuit. . Although the construction manager, who is an atheist, initially attended, he later asked the owner if he could be excused from the religious part because it conflicted with his beliefs, according to the lawsuit. The owner allegedly rejected his demands, cut his salary in half and fired him after he stopped showing up. The owner also reportedly fired the customer service representative, who is agnostic, after she refused to attend due to her religious beliefs.
- The EEOC sued Aurora Pro for creating a religiously hostile workplace, disregarding employees’ religious beliefs and firing them for refusing to conform to its religious practices. “Employers who sponsor prayer meetings in the workplace have a legal obligation to accommodate employees whose personal religious or spiritual views conflict with company practice,” EEOC Regional Counsel Melinda C. Dugas said in a statement. Aurora Pro did not return a request for disclosure before press time.
Overview of the dive:
Unless it is an undue hardship to business operations, Title VII requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincere religious beliefs or practices, says the EEOC in its religious discrimination guidelines. In other words, employers may be required to make reasonable adjustments to the work environment to allow an employee to practice their religion.
Adjustments include familiar accommodation requests to alter a work schedule or dress code, such as the delivery worker who wanted a Sunday off to go to church, or the Pentecostal Christian Apostolic nurse who asked to wearing a scrub skirt, instead of scrub pants, to work because her religion required her to dress modestly and not wear pants.
More recently, employers have faced religious challenges regarding DEI practices or dress codes that employees view as pro-LGBTQ. In June, a federal district court dismissed a case involving former Kroger employees who objected on religious grounds to wearing uniforms with the company’s logo, a four-color heart, because they thought he supported LGBTQ people. Kroger said the logo was not an LGBTQ pride rainbow and denied their request for an exception to its dress code. The court ruled that a jury must decide whether Kroger suffered undue hardship in granting the request.
The North Carolina case reminds employers that they cannot force an employee into religious rites and rituals. This goes beyond requiring employees to attend religious prayer sessions. In 2018, a federal jury found an employer liable for $5.1 million in damages to 10 workers who were coerced into participating in prayers, religious workshops and spiritual cleansing rituals.
The recent Supreme Court decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School Districtabout a Washington high school football coach praying on the field, is likely to spark more discussions in the workplace on religious accommodations — and could increase accommodation requests, Miller Nash attorneys Souvanny Miller and Michael Porter said in a blog post. In Decision 6-3a majority of the judges ruled that a public school board violated free speech and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment when it fired the coach for praying on the field after the game.
Because the ruling addresses First Amendment restrictions on government entities, it does not directly impact private employers. But it does provide a few takeaways, that the prayers were brief and personal, and students were not coerced into participating. Going forward, actions by public or private employers “perceived as ‘hostile’ to religion are more likely than ever to create legal risk and exposure,” Miller and Porter warned.