Sometimes, religious discrimination cases are not about Sabbatarians or dress codes, but about ordinary rituals and ceremonies around the workplace that clash with an individual’s beliefs. Jehovah’s Witnesses might object to forced attendance at birthday parties, while some Jews or Muslims make take umbridge at workplace celebrations of Halloween or St. Valentine’s Day.
In Wilkerson v. New Media Technology Charter school, No. 07-1305 (3d Cir. Apr. 9, 2008), a Christian employee alleged that she attended a work banquet where employees performed a “libation ceremony.” The ceremony is not described in the opinion, but it is an African-American ritual where liquid (water or alcohol) is poured in the four directions of the compass, while the names of the deceased are read aloud (here is recent description of an event in NYC). The employee refused to participate on religious grounds, feeling that the event amounted to worship of the dead, and later complained about having her religious rights violated. When her contract came up for renewal, the school declined to rehire her. She sued under Title VII and the Pennsylvania Human Rights Act.
Although the district court thought that this case was DOA on the complaint, the panel majority reversed in part. The entire panel agreed with the district court that the religious accommodation count of the complaint failed to state a claim: because the employee did not ask to be relieved from participating in the ceremony, there was, ipso facto, no failure to accommodate. Nevertheless, the entire panel also agreed that the employee did state a claim of religious discrimination and remanded for fresh proceedings. The court held that at the pleadings stage — as recently refashioned by Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S. Ct. 1955 (2007) — the plaintiff made a plausible if unlikely case that she was singled out for her refusal to tolerate the event: “In ruling on a motion to dismiss, the court is not free to question whether there was in fact ancestor worship at a public school banquet in a school that ostensibly focuses on digital multimedia and project based learning. . . . Wilkerson’s complaints following the ceremony were based on her religious beliefs, and therefore, as we noted earlier, could be read to allege that her termination was based on her religious beliefs, a violation of Title VII.” (The panel also had to remind the very experienced district court judge that termination of “at-will” employment, by non-renewal of a contract, is an adverse action under title VII.)
The majority and partial dissenting opinions disagreed only on the employee’s retaliation claim, which the majority also “skeptical[ly]” returned to the district court, but which the separate concurrence would have also dismissed.