April 1997

Workplace Labor Update - No Accommodation of Letters “Sharing The Gospel” – April 1997

4 min

The federal appeals court with jurisdiction over Maryland and Virginia recently addressed for the first time an employee's claim for religious accommodation under Title VII. The Court ruled that the employee could not sustain a Title VII claim, first because she did not inform her employer of the need for religious accommodation, and second because her religious "need" was not susceptible to accommodation. Chalmers v. Tulon Co., 101 F.3d 1012 (4th Cir. 1997).

The employee, a manager in the employer's Richmond office, was an evangelical Christian who believed that she had an obligation to share her religion. After having several discussions with her supervisor concerning religion, she sent him a letter that urged him to "get your life right" with the Lord and that stated that "you are doing [something] in your life that God is not [pleased] with and He wants you to stop." The supervisor's wife opened and read the letter and interpreted the references to improper conduct to mean that her husband was committing adultery. The wife called her husband at work and accused him of having extramarital affairs. The supervisor then complained to corporate management about the employee's letter.

While it was investigating the complaint, the company learned that the evangelical employee had sent a second letter to a co-worker who had recently given birth to a child out of wedlock. In her letter, the employee proselytized:

One thing about God, He doesn't like when people commit adultery. You know what you did is wrong, so now you need to go to God and ask for forgiveness. . . . He's a God of Love and a God of Wrath. When people sin against Him, He will allow things to happen to them or their family until they open their eyes and [accept] him.

The co-worker wept when she received the letter and told company management that she had been "crushed by the tone of the letter."

The company, concluding that the letters had a negative affect on working relationships, disrupted the workplace and invaded others privacy, terminated the employee. The employee filed suit against the company, claiming that it discriminated against her based on her religion in violation of Title VII. The federal trial court granted the employer's motion for dismissal.

The appeals court upheld the trial court's ruling, holding that the employee could not establish a claim of failure to accommodate her religion. The court articulated for the first time the standard of proof for religious accommodation claims. To establish a case for such a claim, the plaintiff must prove that (1) he or she has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement; (2) he or she informed the employer of this belief; and (3) he or she was disciplined for the failure to comply with the conflicting employment requirement. If the employee satisfies this burden, the burden then shifts to the employer to show that it could not accommodate the employee's religious needs without undue hardship.

The court concluded that the employee could not satisfy the second element of this standard because she did not notify her employer that her religious beliefs required her to send personal, disturbing letters to her co-workers. The court rejected the employee's arguments that she had "no reason to request an accommodation" because company policy did not prohibit the letters and that the notoriety of her religious beliefs within the company put it on notice of her need to send the letters. The court also rejected the employee's argument that her employer should have accommodated her by giving her a sanction less than a discharge.

Finally, the court held that Title VII does not impose on employers an obligation to accommodate conduct that causes distress to or invades the privacy of other employees. In this instance, the employee knew that sending letters to co-workers accusing them of immoral conduct might cause them distress. Thus, the court concluded, even if the employee had notified the company of her need to send the letters, it did not have the obligation to provide an accommodation.

As this case demonstrates, an employer's duty to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs is not an onerous one. Nevertheless, experienced legal counsel should be consulted when employees request religious accommodations in the workplace.