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'Mark of the Beast' case puts spotlight on religious accommodation

Posted On: Sep. 1, 2015 12:00 AM CST

'Mark of the Beast' case puts spotlight on religious accommodation

A U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case in which a mining worker was awarded $586,860 for allegedly being forced to retire because he refused to use a biometric hand scanner for religious reasons, saying it related to the “Mark of the Beast,” should serve as a warning to employers to take religious accommodation requests seriously, attorneys say.

Beverly R. Butcher Jr. had worked as a laborer for Consolidation Coal Co., a unit of Canonsburg, Pennsylvania-based Consol Energy Inc., for more than 35 years when the company began requiring workers to use a newly installed biometric hand scanner to track employee time and attendance, the EEOC said last week in a statement.

Mr. Butcher repeatedly informed company officials that submitting to biometric hand scanning violated his religious beliefs as an evangelical Christian.

He also wrote a letter to company officials explaining about the relationship between hand-scanning technology and the “Mark of the Beast” and the Antichrist discussed in the New Testament's Book of Revelation, and said he required an exemption from hand scanning based on his religious beliefs, according to the EEOC.

Consolidation and Consol refused to consider alternative means of tracking Mr. Butcher's time and attendance, however, and Mr. Butcher was forced to retire, the EEOC said.

The EEOC filed suit on Mr. Butcher's behalf, charging violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In January, a jury in the U.S. District Court in Clarksburg, West Virginia, awarded Mr. Butcher $150,000 in compensatory damages.

Last week, the court awarded Mr. Butcher an additional $436,861 in wages for the Title VII violations found by the jury. The court also ordered a permanent injunction for a three-year period barring the defendants from denying reasonable accommodations for religion in connection with their use of biometric hand scanning, and required them to be trained on religious accommodations under Title VII.

“I am very pleased with the final outcome in this case, which is the latest in a series of cases involving Title VII's prohibition against religious discrimination,” said EEOC general counsel David Lopez in a statement. “This victory underscores two important American values: religious freedom and inclusiveness.”

St. Clairsville, Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp., which acquired Consolidation Coal in 2013, said in a statement, “The record is clear that Mr. Butcher failed to follow the contractually required dispute resolution procedures. Further, Consolidation Coal Company made a reasonable accommodation for his religious beliefs and never discriminated against Mr. Butcher. We strongly disagree with the decision and will immediately appeal.”

Commenting on the ruling, Mark Fijman, counsel at law firm Phelps Dunbar L.L.P. in Jackson, Mississippi, said the case “highlights how aggressively the EEOC is pursuing religious discrimination cases, and it should serve as a wakeup call to employers, especially in light of the recent Supreme Court decision in Abercrombie & Fitch.”

In its ruling in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch, the Supreme Court held that employers must consider whether a job applicant needs an accommodation based on religious needs, even if the applicant does not mention the subject.

The Abercrombie case “put a heightened standard on employers if they suspect there is a religious accommodation” that is required, Mr. Fijman said. “They have to take a step further than previous courts would call for,” so employers “have to be very proactive in these cases,” he said.

Mark S. Kittaka, a partner with law firm Barnes & Thornburg L.L.P. in Fort Wayne, Indiana, said, “Employers need to take seriously any employee's request for reasonable accommodation, regardless of whether they think it seems outrageous or not,” because it has become a “significant point” of emphasis by the EEOC.