Q: An employee has requested a different assignment because the numerical designation for that step in our production process is 666, which to him represents the devil and therefore violates his religious beliefs. Is this a real issue we are obligated to address?
A: As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Workers have asserted that numerical identifications and, in particular, various combinations of the number six, are associated with the devil. They claim that to accept that connection as part of one’s job would require the worker to take on the “mark of the beast,” a biblical reference to condemnation and eternal damnation.
Generally, federal and state laws forbidding religious discrimination require employers to accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs, as long as the necessary accommodation does not create an undue hardship.
Court cases have broadly defined religion to include any sincere and meaningful belief that occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by God; this includes atheism or agnosticism. Under EEOC guidance, an accommodation would pose an undue hardship if it required more than ordinary administrative costs, diminished efficiency in other jobs, infringed on other employees’ job rights or benefits, or impaired workplace safety.
Whether a proposed accommodation conflicts with another law is considered. If an employee’s proposed accommodation poses an undue hardship, the employer should explore alternative accommodations.
Legal claims in which the “mark of the beast” has been raised as the basis for a requested accommodation include an employee’s refusal to provide a Social Security number, a maintenance worker’s resignation after receiving an employee ID badge with the number 666, a production worker’s refusal to wear a sticker commemorating the 666th accident-free day at the factory, a worker’s refusal to use a biometric hand scanner for tracking time and production data, and an employee’s insistence on being reassigned from the loading dock for truck route 6.
While such conflicts are often resolved informally, or their outcomes are confidential or unreported, two cases that were litigated offer some guidelines.
An employee who refused to provide a Social Security number lost his case because the accommodation, continued employment without proper payroll tax reporting, would have resulted in the employer violating federal law.
In the biometric scanning case, the court ruled against the employer who had unconvincingly claimed undue hardship, since the employer could have permitted manual or other forms of recordkeeping, as was illustrated at trial by the accommodations provided to two other employees with missing fingers.
Bottom line: Treat employees as individuals. Avoid generalizations related to religious beliefs or practices. Make sure your assertions about cost or disruption are measured and documented. And do not adopt a “devil-may-care” attitude that is likely to offend your employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs.
Do you have a question related to employment law, wage and hour issues, human resources, or regulatory compliance involving state agencies such as DEEP or DRS? Members can get free information from CBIA’s experts by calling 860.244.1900.