Court Rules on Religion and Domestic Partnership at the workplace

Oregon Court Rules That County May Have Duty to Accommodate Religious Employee Who Would Not Process Domestic Partnerships
By Barran Liebman,
Oregon law firm

A recent decision from Oregon’s federal district court addresses an employer’s duty to accommodate an employee whose religious beliefs interfere with the performance of certain job functions. The name of the case is Slater v. Douglas County.

The employee, who worked at the County Clerk’s Office for ten years, asked to be excused from working on domestic partnership registrations because it would be adverse to her religious belief that homosexuality is a sin. The County denied her request, stating that it would cause an undue hardship, but offered to help her find another position. The employee did not find another position, and was terminated when she re-affirmed her unwillingness to do work related to domestic partnership registrations.

Subject to certain exceptions, state and federal laws allow employees to engage in religious expression in the workplace, and an employer may not discriminate against an employee on the basis of religion. If an employee establishes that he or she was discriminated against on the basis of religion, the employer must show that it made a good faith effort to accommodate the employee’s beliefs, or demonstrate that doing so would have caused an undue hardship on its business operations. In this case, the employee alleged that the County unlawfully failed to accommodate her religious beliefs, and discharged her as a result. Both parties agreed that the employee had proven discrimination. Therefore, the court had to decide only whether the County made reasonable efforts to accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs, or whether no reasonable accommodation was possible without creating an undue hardship on the County.

The court first found that the County did not make reasonable efforts to accommodate the employee. While the County made a “vague promise” to help the employee find another job, no positions became available before she was terminated. She was ultimately rejected for four other County jobs.

The court, however, found that a jury should decide whether the County would face an undue hardship if it excused the employee from domestic partnership-related duties. The court expressed doubt that the County could establish undue hardship, given that it engaged in minimal dialogue with the employee, her co-workers, and other counties before deciding that there was no workable way to accommodate the employee without undue hardship. Additionally, the evidence showed that there were few applications for domestic partnership registration in the years following the employee’s termination, and that these registrations were not time-consuming. The court specifically noted that the County, as a public employer, would not have impermissibly favored the employee’s religion by making better efforts to accommodate her. Nevertheless, it decided that it did not have enough evidence to decide for either the County or the employee, and ordered that the case proceed to trial.

This case serves as a reminder that both public and private employers must make a good-faith effort to accommodate the religious beliefs of their employees, even if those beliefs pertain to another protected group (in this case, sexual orientation). Specifically, the employer should engage in an interactive process where it works collaboratively with the employee to explore options that would ensure job performance within the confines of the particular beliefs at issue. While employers are not required to accommodate requests that are unreasonable or would impose an undue hardship on business operations, it is good policy to investigate potential solutions prior to determining that any accommodation is unworkable.

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