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Posted on Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Coal Mine Faces a Demonic Threat

Beverly Butcher of West Virginia worked for a coal mine owned by Consol Energy for 37 years. But when Consol Energy implemented a biometric hand scanner to track the hours of its employees, Butcher, a devout evangelical Christian, refused to use it based on what he claimed was his religious belief that putting his hand in the scanner could lead to his identification with the Antichrist. Butcher informed his supervisors that, according to his understanding of the Book of Revelation, the hand scanner could imprint his with the Mark of the Beast, which is associated with evil. He submitted a letter from his evangelical pastor in support of this belief, and offered to use the old method of punching a time clock. In response, the company gave Butcher a letter from the manufacturer of the hand scanner offering assurances that the scanner does not place any mark during use. Consol Energy gave Butcher an ultimatum–use the new hand scanner or risk termination. Faced with this, Butcher submitted his resignation, and brought his case to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which in turn brought a suit against Consol for religious discrimination on Butcher’s behalf.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals—the same federal appellate court that was recently in the news for livestreaming the oral arguments and ultimately ruling against the Trump Administration’s travel ban—ruled that Consol Energy engaged in religious discrimination against Butcher in forcing him to use the hand scanner to track his hours. In so doing, the appellate court upheld a jury verdict in Butcher’s favor and resulting damages to the tune of almost $600,000. The appeals court said that once Butcher demonstrated that his religious beliefs were sincerely held, Consol Energy was wrong to question the accuracy or legitimacy of those beliefs. Any misunderstanding by Butcher about the Book of Revelation or the Mark of the Beast was irrelevant to Butcher’s claim for religious discrimination under federal law, the appeals court concluded. The court noted that there were alternatives to using the hand scanner that Consol Energy could have allowed in this case, such as manually entering an identification number into the computer system.

As my clients reading this already know, I routinely caution companies against playing doctor when it comes to evaluating employee claims regarding disability, and instead advise that the main focus should be on an employee’s job performance. With this ruling, I now have to add a new warning: employers in the Fourth Circuit (which covers Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina, and West Virginia) should not play theologian in debating the claimed religious beliefs of their employees. As long as the claimed religious beliefs are sincerely held—and who can really say whose are and whose aren’t—the company must determine whether it can accommodate such beliefs without causing what the law calls “undue hardship.” In retrospect, Consol Energy might just as easily have allowed the employee to bypass the hand scanner for another method, despite its skepticism regarding the employee’s claimed religious objection to using it.

Declan Leonard is managing partner of the Washington, DC regional business law firm Berenzweig Leonard, LLP. He can be reached at DLeonard@BerenzweigLaw.com