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Kim Davis, Religious Freedom and Accommodations

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By Gary Minor, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University

As Kim Davis heads back to court, human-resources staff and employment lawyers around the country are revisiting their policies and practices around accommodating workers’ religious beliefs and practices.

Davis is the Rowan County, Kentucky clerk who made worldwide headlines for refusing to obey the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling legalizing same-sex marriage across the country. She refused to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples, contending that doing so would contravene her religious beliefs. As a result, a federal judge found her in contempt of court for not performing her public-service duties and sent her to jail for five days in September.

[Related Article: Impact of Supreme Court Same-Sex Marriage Ruling on Criminal Justice Agencies]

Religion in the workplaceSome of the issues raised by her case may be unique, in that she is an elected official who works for a county government but performs duties in accordance with state laws and regulations.

However, the case has drawn attention to the broader issues about what to do when a person’s religious beliefs come into conflict with their work duties. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act forbids discrimination based on religious beliefs (as well as race, color, sex, and national origin). This act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s or applicant’s religious beliefs and practices. The courts have held that where the requested accommodations would result in a greater than de minimis costs, a public employer is not obligated to provide the accommodations.

Religious Accommodations Involving Police Officers
Religious accommodation requests occur in many public agencies, including police departments. For example, in the case of Beadle v. Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department, an officer who was a Seventh-day Adventist completed all of his initial training and probation time and received his work schedule. Because his religion precluded working from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, he demanded his work schedule accommodate his religious beliefs. The department used rotating shifts and denied the request. However, they did allow him to use vacation and shift swaps to make his accommodations. The employee often failed to use these accommodations and was ultimately fired for abandoning his post in the middle of a shift. The employee believed that Title VII mandated the employer to grant him permanent shifts or make others work his weekends. The appellate court disagreed.

In another case, N.Y City Transit Authority v. State, Executive Dept., a Seventh-day Adventist employed by the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) requested Fridays and Saturdays off to observe her Sabbath. The NYCTA declined her request, as it would violate the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement governing her position/employment. On appeal to the New York Supreme Court, appellate division, the court said that the NYCTA need not accommodate a Sabbath observer where the accommodations are clearly prohibited by the nondiscriminatory provisions of the bargaining agreement.

While these two cases were in favor of the employer, it is important that agencies make an effort to accommodate employees, whether the request is based on religion, race, sex or another characteristic that is considered protected classes.

Gary MinorAbout the Author: Gary Minor teaches criminal justice courses at American Military University. He completed his bachelor’s degree in Police Science and Administration with a minor in pre-law from Washington State University and his MBA in Information Systems at City University in Washington. After completing his MBA, he attended Seattle University School of Law and obtained his Juris Doctor degree. He also obtained his police executive certification, a requirement to be a chief executive of a law enforcement agency in Washington. His academic interests include police executive management, law and justice, juvenile justice and ethics in law enforcement. Professor Minor has significant executive experience, having served as a Chief of Police, President of the Snohomish County Police and Sheriff’s Association and the South Snohomish County Police Advisory committee. He also served two terms as the Chairman of the Board for Emergency Services Coordinating Agency (ESCA), a FEMA affiliate.

 

 

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