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Religious Holidays and Reasonable Accommodation

Via a consent decree entered and approved March 25, 2013, Ozarks Electric, a major electric cooperative in Fayetteville, agreed to pay a $95,000 to a former employee and engage in prospective relief to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. EEOC vs. Ozarks Electric, U.S. District Court, W. D.  Ark, 12 – cv – 5014.

Naomi Solis was both a capable employee and long-time faithful member of the Fayetteville East Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  One of the sincerely held tenants of her faith was that she must attend a Jehovah’s Witness’ convention each year.  Solis requested a day off on Friday, June 4, 2010 to attend the Annual Convention. Ozark responded that if she did not report to work on June 4, that she need not report back to work on Monday, June 7.  Solis attended the religious convention nonetheless, and lost her job.

Ozark contended that they offered a reasonable accommodation to Ms. Solis’ religious convictions through a generous paid time off system.   Annual Conventions are provided at  many locations  and at various times throughout the year. The educational material covered is the same.  Congregants are assigned by their local Congregation to a particular convention.  It is permissible to make schedule changes with the religious authorities, which might have allowed Solis to coordinate her time off with the convention.  However, Solis believed that it would be disobedient of her to attempt to do so, even though it appears she had made scheduling changes for the Convention in past years.  The case involved dozens of pages of minute detail concerning the scheduling of Jehovah’s Witness’ conventions.

With cross-motions for summary judgment pending in Bible Belt jurisdiction,  Ozark threw in the towel and entered a consent decree which provided not only for $95,000 in back pay to Solis and a neutral employment reference, but also a requirement that Ozark create and enforce a written policy acceptable to the EEOC to prevent any further occurrences of religious discrimination. This policy must include an internal appeal system within the defendant corporation as well as posted signs, mandatory education for employees concerning religious discrimination and the remedies available to them, the hiring of an expert in religious discrimination to teach the course as well as other relief. The consent decree notes that the defendant does not admit that its conduct constituted unlawful discrimination.

This case, in conjunction with EEOC v Senior Living, decided last week in federal court in Texas, indicate that the EEOC is taking a hard line on Sabbath observances and other religious holidays and that employers should bend over backward to prevent employees from ” having to choose between their religion and their work ….”

Widely published, Tobolsky has held editorial positions with National Trial Lawyer, New Jersey Trial Lawyer and Rutgers-Camden Law Journal, and is a regular columnist in the Barrister, Camden County Bar Association’s monthly publication. Tobolsky has also served as co-editor of New Jersey State Bar Association’s Construction Law Section newsletter. He published earlier this year in Construction Executive magazine in its Legally Speaking column. He was recently appointed as a delegate of the Camden County Bar Association to the General Council of the New Jersey State Bar Association.

Tobolsky is a member of the Marketing and Education and Governmental Affairs Committees of the Associated Builders and Contractors – New Jersey Chapter. Moreover, he has also served as co-chair of the Construction Law Section Newsletter Committee of the New Jersey State Bar Association, and a subcommittee of the American Bar Association Committee on Business and Commercial Litigation.

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