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In the Name of Religion

No matter the faith or belief, religion makes its way into the work environment more often than one would expect. This week's headlines serve as a prime example of that.

Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to sign marriage licenses after the Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage, has taken on a public and political spotlight. While there are criminal and social implications to her behavior, at the root of her actions, it is an employment issue. Ms. Davis's job duties included the signing of marriage licenses. In fact, Ms. Davis's office was the only location in the county at which individuals could apply for marriage licenses. Thus, the signing of marriage licenses would appear to have been an essential function of her job. Like any essential function, if the individual who is currently employed in that position cannot perform the essential functions with a reasonable accommodation, then he or she is not qualified for the position. In Ms. Davis's situation one may argue that someone else could sign the marriage license. An employer, however, has no duty to transfer an essential function of the position to another employee. If they do, however, the function quickly becomes no longer essential to the position.

With special thanks to Lori Valigra (@lvaligra) for recently pointing out the Christian Science Monitor article that contrasted the Kim Davis events with Charee Stanley's employment with ExpressJet it's important to see how similar and dissimilar the Davis and Stanley situations are—and how the difference in employer response may affect outcome.

Ms. Stanley is a Muslim flight attendant who refused to serve alcohol to passengers as a result of her religious beliefs. When Ms. Stanley began working for ExpressJet it appears she was able to perform all the duties associated with her job, however approximately a year ago, she converted to Islam and explained to a supervisor that she felt her faith forbade her from serving alcohol. As a result, her supervisor directed her to speak with her co-workers and work out an arrangement which allowed the other flight attendant to serve drinks while she performed other tasks. Later a co-worker complained and ExpressJet placed Ms. Stanley on leave for her refusal to serve alcohol. As a result, she has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Insomuch as the serving of beverages (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) was previously an essential function of the position, Ms. Stanley's supervisors' decision to allow her to transfer those duties to another co-worker set a precedent that the task of serving alcohol is not an essential function of the position. This situation also highlights some of the employment issues that can be raised when alcohol is a part of the employer's work environment.

If you are faced with an employee who is requesting an accommodation as to work requirements on the basis of a religious belief, give a member of Verrill Dana's Labor & Employment Practice Group a call to discuss best practices. Further, if you are an employer who serves or "creates" alcoholic beverages, be aware that additional state and federal regulations could come into play when dealing with your employees—a member of Verrill Dana's new Breweries, Distilleries & Wineries Practice Group can further assist you in this arena.

Topics: Discrimination, Essential Function, Reasonable Accommodation, Religion, Religious Discrimination