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Adeyeye v. Heartland Sweeteners, LLC, No. 12-3820 (7th Cir. July 31, 2013)

The Seventh Circuit sends back for trial this Title VII religious-accommodation case, concerning a Nigerian employee's request for five weeks' leave time to attend his father's funeral overseas. One disputed issue was whether the employee clearly indicated a religious purpose for the voyage, where he said that "if he failed to lead the burial rites, he and his family members would suffer at least spiritual death."

Adeyeye v. Heartland Sweeteners, LLC, No. 12-3820 (7th Cir. July 31, 2013): The plaintiff testified that his family's religion is "a blend of Christianity and customs, traditions, and ceremonial rites developed in his Nigerian village. As a part of this religion, the specific dictates of each family's religious practice are identified, determined, and required by the father or male head of the household. Thus, participating in the rites and traditions identified by his father is a necessary part of Adeyeye's religious observance."

When Adeyeye's father died, he requested unpaid leave time to attend his father's funeral. In his first written request, dated July 19, 2010, he wrote:

"I hereby request for five weeks leave in order to attend funeral ceremony of my father. This is very important for me to be there in order to participate in the funeral rite according to our custom and tradition. The ceremony usually cover from three to four weeks and is two weeks after the burial, there is certain rite[s] that all of the children must participate. And after the third week, my mother will not come out until after one month when I have to be there to encourage her, and I have to [k]ill five goats, then she can now come out. This is done compulsory for the children so that the death will not come or take away any of the children's life. I will appreciate if this request is approved."

After this request was denied, he resubmitted his request (on September 15, 2010), seeking three weeks unpaid leave and one week of vacation time. This was also rejected. Adeyeye, following the dictates of his faith, attended the rites anyway. His employer terminated him and he brought suit under Title VII for failure to provide reasonable accommodations for his religion. The district court granted summary judgment, but the Seventh Circuit reversed.

In defining which spiritual concerns may constitute religious belief, the panel relies on the U.S. Supreme Court's formula in the 1965 decision, United States v. Seeger, a military draft concerning a conscientious objector: "In such an intensely personal area, of course, the claim of the registrant that his belief is an essential part of a religious faith must be given great weight. . . . The validity of what he believes cannot be questioned. Some theologians, and indeed some examiners, might be tempted to question the existence of the registrant's 'Supreme Being' or the truth of his concepts. But these inquiries are foreclosed to Government."

The panel holds that a jury could find that Adeyeye's request met this definition:

"[The] first request referred to a 'funeral ceremony,' a 'funeral rite,' and animal sacrifice. He explained that participation in the funeral ceremonies was 'compulsory' and that the spiritual consequence of his absence would be his own and family members' deaths. A reasonable jury could certainly find that the letter's multiple references to spiritual activities and the potential consequences in the afterlife provided sufficient notice to Heartland that Adeyeye was making a religious request. The second request was not as specific as the first, but referred to a funeral ceremony and burial ceremony and the importance of his attendance as the first child and only son."

The panel also holds that there was evidence that Adeyeye's religious beliefs were sincerely held, and not merely a reflection of filial loyalty: "a jury could find that for Adeyeye to observe his religion appropriately, it was necessary for him to participate in the burial ceremonies." The record included the following facts -

"Adeyeye explained that upon immigration to the United States, he, as head of his household, identified the religious rites and traditions his immediate family would observe and that these practices were not identical to the religious practices his family observes in Nigeria. He also made clear, however, that this is consistent with an inter-generational form of faith and practice where part of the belief system is that the head of each household has the privilege and responsibility of determining the family's exact practices."

The panel also warns away from excessive judicial scrutiny of the sincerity issue:

"As Adeyeye's counsel aptly noted in oral argument, the prospect that courts would begin to inquire into the personal reasons an individual has for holding a religious belief would create a slippery slope we have no desire to descend. Has the plaintiff had a true conversion experience? Is he following religious practices that are embedded in his culture and family upbringing? Is he making Pascal's coldly rational wager to believe in God based on his self-interest? These questions are simply not an appropriate or necessary line of inquiry for courts. We are not and should not be in the business of deciding whether a person holds religious beliefs for the 'proper' reasons. We thus restrict our inquiry to whether or not the religious belief system is sincerely held; we do not review the motives or reasons for holding the belief in the first place."

The panel also holds that there is evidence in the record that the failure to accomodate directly caused the plaintiff's termination, and that the company would not be able to establiah its defense that it suffered undue hardship by Adeyeye's evidence:

"[D]uring his tenure at Heartland, Adeyeye had two jobs: material handler and packer/palletizer. The evidence would permit a jury to find that Heartland expects and plans for high turnover of workers in both job categories without compromising quality or productivity. The factory where Adeyeye worked is staffed by temporary workers as well as permanent workers. At the time of Adeyeye's departure, half of the shifts for the packer/palletizers and one third of the shifts for material handlers were staffed by temporary workers. Heartland expected and planned for the frequent turnover of employees by keeping a ready list of temporary workers who usually reported to Heartland within an hour of a request."

Finally, the panel addresses a defense argument that truly tried the court's patience - that it would be a "reasonable accommodation" for the employer to offer the employee a chance to quit for the duration of the overseas rites, then reapply. The judges skewer this one with a few well-chosen words:

"Heartland had the good sense to relegate this argument to a footnote. It has little to recommend to it. We strain to imagine a situation in which such an offer could be considered an accommodation, nor could we locate a federal court in the country opining that such an accommodation could be reasonable for a religious request. Title VII does not contemplate asking employees to sacrifice their jobs to observe their religious practices. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, Title VII aimed to ensure that employees would not have to sacrifice their jobs to observe their religious practices. An option of voluntary termination with the right to ask for one's old job later is not a reasonable accommodation."

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