religious discrimination

After the California Department of Corrections disciplined corrections officer Marshel Copple, he sued it for failing to accommodate his religion. What religion, you ask? “Sun Worshipping Atheism.” Never heard of it? Maybe that’s because Copple, who created the religion, is its only member. Its core beliefs include “rational worship of the sun,” getting at least 8 hours of sleep, eating and drinking “when you need to,” and getting fresh air.

The dispute arose when Copple refused to work overtime. His employer told him, as it had when he applied, that overtime was part of the job. Copple responded that working overtime would interfere with his practice of his religion (the tenets of which he posted on the internet the day before). He later resigned and sued the Department of Corrections for religious discrimination. The trial court tossed the case out on summary judgment and the appellate court affirmed.

Copyright:  / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: / 123RF Stock Photo

Sadly, the decision (which you can read here: Copple v. CDC Opinion) was not based on the principle that you can’t make up a religion which you’re the only member of and demand to be accommodated. The court, in fact, took pains to note that it was “not judging the intrinsic value of plaintiff’s beliefs or” his sincerity. Instead, it relied on the fact that Sun Worshipping Atheism (like veganism) does not express a full set of beliefs and there are no rituals, services, holy days, or the like. It wasn’t religious discrimination because Copple’s personal philosophy didn’t rise to the level of being a religion.

Takeaways?

  • For employers, understand that the term “religious” in “religious discrimination” can extend beyond any belief system you’ve ever heard of. Get qualified advice before denying an accommodation request.
  • For employees, if you’re making up a religion that you want to be taken seriously, it’s probably best to leave “Atheism” out of the name.

Copple should look on the bright side. A lot of popular religions start off with tales of persecution and oppression. In a few hundred years, his could really take off!

If you work in Human Resources in Hospitality, are in Los Angeles on Thursday, and are interested in a terrific networking event with a fun and informative speaker, then look no further. The Los Angeles Hotels Human Resources Association is sponsoring an event on Thursday, April 25th, and I am the guest speaker. Get ready for Hot Topics "Jeopardy" – And the Employment Law Category Is? Participants will engage in a "Jeopardy-style" interactive game to learn about the latest employment law issues and challenges.  For those of you who can’t make it, I will report on the best lessons after the event. Stay tuned.

Does an employer’s obligation to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs extend to veganism (i.e. the belief that it is immoral to consume or use animal products)? As noted by inveterate blogger Robin Shea, a federal court in Ohio refused to dismiss such a claim. It gives me great pleasure to report that, in California, that argument’s goose is cooked.

Both cases involved employees working in hospitals who refused to receive vaccines (mumps in California, flu in Ohio) because eggs were used in their production. But while the case in Ohio was allowed to proceed, a 2002 state court of appeal case (Friedman v. Southern Cal. Permanente Med. Grp.) reached the opposite conclusion.

It doesn’t matter how firmly held the beliefs are. According to the defintion relied on by the California court, a religion provides a comprehensive belief system and answers fundamental questions like the meaning of human existence and why we are here. Veganism doesn’t meet those requirements and, therefore, is not a religion.  

To be clear, I’m not saying it’s OK to hold employees down and force-feed them hot dogs at the company picnic. But if you do, you’re not violating California’s laws against religious discrimination.

Update: Over at the New Jersey Human Resources Blog, my colleague Michael Hanan, predicts that New Jersey might buy into the veganism as religion argument.

We employment defense attorneys are especially fond of the minefield analogy.  You get over a million hits if you Google: "California ’employment law’ minefield."  So no matter how fitting the analogy may be, it’s overused.  We need to come up with something new.  It’s time to move on.  I propose a tightrope analogy.

A recent case involving NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory illustrates the analogy particularly well.  Managers at JPL were concerned that an employee was persistently proselytizing by engaging co-workers in arguments about "intelligent design" and even distributing documentaries on the subject.  They accused him of creating a hostile work environment for co-workers and ultimately demoted him.

The employee sued, claiming that this was discrimination against him based on his religion.  JPL moved for summary judgment and the trial judge (Judge Ernest M. Hiroshige in LA Superior) denied the motion.  According to the court, a jury should decide whether JPL acted based on the plaintiff’s religious beliefs as opposed to his persistence in espousing them to co-workers.  That’s a pretty fine line to draw and illustrates how employers dealing with these issues are walking in a mine . . . er, I mean on a tightrope. 

The case (Coppedge v. NASA JPL) is discussed in Law 360 (subscription required), which included a copy of the order (pdf).