Disciplining Employees Based On Religious Views of Homosexuality May Be Actionable

A recent Eighth Circuit decision indicates that employers that give employees negative reviews for opposing homosexuality on religious grounds may be held liable for discrimination. In Phillips v. Collings, 86 FEP Cases 411 (8th Cir. 2001), a supervisor had previously given the plaintiff social worker adequate or good evaluations. However, after the social worker told her that his religion viewed homosexuality as an “abomination” and that his beliefs prevented him from licensing homosexuals as foster parents, the supervisor drafted a four-page evaluation that recommended the worker’s termination – in part because of his religious views.

At the request of her superiors, the supervisor dropped the request for termination from the draft evaluation. In the meantime, the social worker requested and received a transfer, due to his conflict with the supervisor. After he assumed his new position, the worker received his supervisor’s final evaluation, which was now 53 pages and critical of every aspect of his job performance. Additionally, the evaluation imposed remedial training and corrective action plans upon the social worker.

The social worker sued the supervisor for adverse employment action under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, and was awarded over $26,000 in damages. On appeal, the supervisor argued that no adverse employment action occurred, as the evaluation was never implemented because of the worker’s transfer.

In upholding the verdict, the court noted that a “poor performance evaluation, alone, typically does not constitute an adverse employment action.” However, the court rejected the supervisor’s claim that no adverse action took place, pointing out that the worker requested a transfer to avoid the supervisor’s repeated criticism of his religious views. Moreover, the court took note of the fact that the supervisor’s final evaluation was “unprecedented in length and malediction,” and unlike any other received by the social worker or his co-workers.

What It Means

The Phillips case illustrates that criticizing employees for refusing to perform jobs that contradict their religious views may expose employers to significant liability. In these cases, employers should look for ways to restructure the employee’s duties so that no religious conflict occurs.

The law requires that employers “reasonably accommodate” their employees’ religious views unless doing so would cause undue hardship. In the Phillips case, for instance, the court noted that the number of homosexuals applying to be foster parents was “rare.” As such, the supervisor should have simply removed all applications by homosexuals from the social worker’s caseload, rather than reprimanding him for his beliefs.

Contact an Attorney

If you are concerned you have an actionable employment discrimination claim based on your religious views and that the statute of limitations clock is ticking, contact our office today for a free consultation.

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