The Fifth Circuit addresses a seldom-litigated question under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j): whether plaintiffs in religious reasonable-accommodation cases must prove both that they hold sincere (“bona fide”) religious convictions, and that the activities to be accommodated constitute true religious beliefs. The panel splits 2-1, with the majority reversing summary judgment for the employer and holding that even a non-religious observance (here, a community service event for the plaintiff’s church) might require accommodation.
Davis v. Fort Bend Cty., No. 13-20610 (5th Cir. Aug. 26, 2014): Ms. Davis was a Desktop Support Supervisor responsible for supervising a staff of information technology (“IT”) technicians. The county, in 2011, was preparing to open a new courthouse. It ordered the IT staff to be available to transfer the computers over the Fourth of July weekend. Ms. Davis informed her supervisor (named Ford) that she was unavailable that weekend, citing a conflict with a church event:
“On June 28, 2011, Davis informed Ford that she would not be available to work the morning of Sunday July 3, 2011, allegedly ‘due to a previous religious commitment.’ Davis testified that ‘[i]t was a special church service, and that I needed to be off that Sunday[,] . . . but I would be more than willing to come in after church services.’ Davis also testified that she had arranged for a replacement during her absence, as she had done in the past.”
When Ms. Davis failed to appear at work that weekend, the county fired her.
The district court granted summary judgment on Ms. Davis’s religious discrimination claim (as well as on an FMLA retaliation claim – the Fifth Circuit unanimously affirms that decision). It held that “being an avid and active member of church does not elevate every activity associated with that church into a legally protectable religious practice.” It then found that Ms. Davis’s “absence from work was due to personal commitment, not religious conviction,” because she described her obligation as a “request” from her Pastor that all members participate in the “community service event.”
The panel majority reverses. It holds that the district court erred in carrying out a too-searching examination into the plaintiff’s religious beliefs. “A court’s inquiry is limited to focusing upon the individual’s motivation …. Conversely, whether the belief itself is central to the religion, i.e., whether the belief is a true religious tenet, is ‘not open to question'” (quoting Moussazadeh v. Tex. Dep’t of Criminal Justice, 703 F.3d 781, 790 (5th Cir. 2012)).
The panel majority stresses that at summary judgment, the issue was limited to “whether there exists a genuine dispute of material fact whether Davis sincerely felt that she was religiously compelled to attend and participate in a special service at church on Sunday, July 3.” The panel holds that the plaintiff met this light burden:
“In Davis’s view, her bona fide belief that she was religiously compelled to attend the event is supported by her testimony that she is a devout member of the Church Without Walls. Specifically, she refers this court to her testimony that she attends at least two services every weekend; she volunteers for the church; the pastor knows her and would vouch for her; and she believed strongly that she ‘needed’ to be at church on Sunday, July 3, 2011, as a religious matter. As the nonmoving party on summary judgment, Davis contends that the court must draw the inference in her favor that her decision to attend church was religious, ‘at the very least in her own scheme of things.'”
The district court erred, holds the panel majority, because it did not examine whether Ms. Davis’s intention was insincere, but focused instead whether “the July 3rd church event was in itself a true religious tenet.”
Further, the panel majority holds that there was a genuine dispute of material fact whether Ms. Davis’s brief absence on July 3 could be accommodated by a substitute. “Not only was this ‘short period of absence’ minimal under Title VII, but Davis claims she arranged for a substitute for the hours she would be absent. Moreover, Davis contends we should not give credit to Fort Bend’s purported undue hardship because Fort Bend permitted another employee to take time off to attend a parade that same weekend.”
While allowing that “Fort Bend correctly asserts that requiring an employee to substitute for Davis’s absence may, as a matter of law, impose more than a de minimis cost,” the panel majority holds that this case was distinguishable from prior cases because “there was a ready and willing volunteer to substitute for Davis …. With a volunteer substitute available, Fort Bend would not have had incur any cost requiring an employee to substitute for Davis, nor would Fort Bend necessarily be left short-handed.”
In dissent, Judge Smith would hold that the correct inquiry in a religious reasonable-accommodation case is whether Ms. Davis’s belief that she needed to attend the July 3 service was religious in nature. The dissent concludes that the record unmistakably supports the conclusion that the conflict was one of personal time, not of religious conviction. “[C]ourts are tasked with deciding not only whether the alleged belief is ‘sincerely held’ but also ‘whether [the beliefs] are . . . religious’” (quoting United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 185 (1965)). The dissent asserts that this opinion deviates from the law of five other circuits that “have held that courts must consider both whether a belief is religious in nature and whether it is sincerely held.”