A New Jersey Pilot Recovered $305K After His Employer Refused to Accommodate His Buddhist Religious Beliefs

Work-related religious discrimination can occur in many different ways. It may take the form of your employer forbidding you from doing something that’s required by your faith, or your employer demanding that you do something that’s inconsistent with the teachings of your religion. Either way, your employer is required, except in exceptional circumstances, to accommodate your religious beliefs and, if they don’t, you may be entitled to significant compensation through legal action. A knowledgeable New Jersey religious discrimination lawyer can help you determine whether you have a case and, if so, what your next steps should be.

The religious discrimination case surrounding a New Jersey pilot who worked for United Airlines was an example of the latter: an employer requirement that conflicted with the employee’s religion. The pilot had been diagnosed with alcohol dependency, and the Federal Aviation Authority had removed his medical clearance to fly.

United requires pilots with alcohol dependency issues to complete a “HIMS” (Human Intervention Motivation Study) program. HIMS, according to the website, is “an occupational substance abuse treatment program, specific to pilots, that coordinates the identification, treatment, and return to work process for” pilots affected by substance use issues, helping them to secure new medical clearances to fly.

United’s HIMS program required that participants regularly attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). On the surface, that might seem like a benign obligation but, beneath the surface, things are more complex. AA, while officially accepting of people of all religious faiths (and no belief at all), was founded as a Christian organization,2 and AA’s 12 steps call upon participants to submit themselves to the “will of [the Judeo-Christian] God.”

The United pilot, as a practicing Buddhist, opposed participating in AA on religious grounds. The pilot did offer a proposed alternative in the form of a “Buddhism-based peer support group.” The employer rejected this proposed accommodation, leaving the pilot unable to re-obtain medical clearance to fly.

This rejection, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, amounted to illegal religious discrimination. The law related to religious accommodations is very similar to the law governing pregnancy or disability accommodations. The law says that, once an employee has requested a reasonable accommodation, the employer must grant that request or else provide some other form of mutually agreeable reasonable accommodation. The employer may only avoid providing a reasonable accommodation if it can show that accommodating the employee’s religious beliefs (or disability or pregnancy) would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer.

As a footnote on the pilot’s case, one will note that many Buddhists not only do not oppose AA, they see many commonalities between Buddhist teaching and AA’s 12 steps. Nevertheless, the pilot still was entitled to accommodation. To trigger the right to a religious accommodation, you need only establish that you are a practitioner of a recognized religion and that your beliefs are sincerely held, even if some of your fellow practitioners don’t agree with your viewpoint.

In the end, the employer settled the case, agreeing to pay the pilot $305,000.

A Different Case, a Different Religion, and Another Objection to Mandatory AA Attendance

This pilot isn’t the first person to encounter problems related to objecting to AA on religious grounds. In late July, a federal appeals court ruled for an employee in a case with many similarities to the matter involving the New Jersey pilot. In that earlier case, an air traffic assistant self-reported her DUI and, under the rules established by her employer (the Federal Aviation Administration,) she could only avoid disciplinary action by completing a “rehabilitation plan designed and supervised by the FAA.”

The plan for the assistant, much like the one for the New Jersey pilot, called for the employee to attend AA. The assistant, who was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness, objected.

Not long after the assistant complained about religious discrimination, the employer terminated her. The appeals court concluded that she had a viable claim for retaliation in violation of Title VII. Even though the person who retaliated against her for filing a discrimination complaint was someone who did not have the authority to fire her, the assistant still had a potential case against her employer.

In this state, you have the right to seek a reasonable accommodation of your sincerely-held religious beliefs. If your employer refuses to provide an accommodation, it may be in violation of state law, federal law, or both. The skilled New Jersey religious discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates are here to help, providing our religious discrimination clients with representation that is equal parts diligent, aggressive, and effective. To find out more, contact us online or at (866) 229-9441 to set up a free and confidential consultation today.

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