The employee filed a charge of discrimination with the state Commission on Human Rights alleging religious discrimination. The commission found that the business had discriminated against the employee and ordered it to cease its unlawful practice and to pay her back wages plus additional money for humiliation and embarrassment.
Making a Jehovah’s Witness answer the business phones with the greeting "Merry Christmas." Is this legal in Florida?
On appeal the Court of Appeals ruled that the record contained substantial and probative evidence to support the finding that the employee was discharged because of religious discrimination.
In explaining its ruling, the court noted that the employee testified that saying the greeting “Merry Christmas” to another person, at any time or in any manner, would be considered by her as a violation of her religious beliefs. She was supported in this fact by the testimony of an elder and member of the governing body of the employee’s Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation.
The employee also supported her claim with exhibits taken from publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses concerning the prohibition against the observance of Christmas.
In this case, there was no question concerning the fact that the business’s officers and the employee’s immediate supervisor were informed of the conflict between the instructions and the employee’s religious beliefs. The employee sought to obtain some accommodation, but the company offered none. The Court of Appeals explained that the record also appears clear that the company could have accommodated the employee’s religious beliefs without undue hardship to its business. “This could have been accomplished by not requiring her to answer the phone during this season or she could have merely answered with the greeting “Good Morning.”
The Court of Appeals commented that once an employee’s prima facie case has been established, the employer must then prove that an accommodation to the employee’s beliefs will result in some undue hardship, but this was not done in this case. The Court looked to see whether something more than a de minimis cost in the form of either lost efficiency or wages existed to constitute undue hardship which will relieve an employer of its duty to accommodate the religious beliefs of its employees.
An employee’s duties included answering the company phones on occasion. The company president instructed all personnel to answer the telephone with the greeting, “Merry Christmas.” The employee immediately informed the president that the greeting would compromise her beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. He informed her that if she could not answer the phone as he instructed, he would write her a check. The employee also consulted with her immediate supervisor and with the vice-president of the company. Both parties informed her that she must do as she was told. Later that day, the employee was given a final check and she departed.
The Court of Appeals provided guidance for employers:
“An overwhelming majority of citizens in this country observe the Christmas season as either a religious or national holiday, but the record clearly indicates that such observation and celebration is against the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses. While many people would consider that the mere statement or greeting of ‘Merry Christmas’ would not endorse Christmas, any more than a Christian wishing a Jew a ‘Happy Hanukkah’ endorses the Jewish faith, [the employee] nevertheless satisfactorily proved that her statement would compromise her beliefs. It would not have been unreasonably difficult for [the company] to have accommodated [the employee] in her beliefs…Requiring a Jehovah’s Witness to answer telephones with the greeting ‘Merry Christmas’ constituted unlawful religious discrimination when the employer was informed that it would compromise her beliefs but fired the employee for refusing to comply.”
Ky. Com. on Human. Rights v. Lesco Mfg. & Design Co., 736 S.W.2d 361, 364 (Ky. Ct. App. 1987)
Although this case is 30 years old and was not decided by a Florida court, the guidance it provides to business owners in Florida is still useful.
This article reminds employers that religious accommodations are often something that may require assistance of an employment law attorney. If you need any assistance in relation to analyzing handling such accommodation requests, please email or call the Law Office of David Miklas, P.A. at 1-772-465-5111 before you take that action to make sure that it is legal.
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