Court Decision Highlights Lack of Protection for Employees’ Religious Needs on the Job

Posted on June 28, 1999 In Press Releases

Today, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, through its Institute for Public Affairs, pointed to a decision of the full panel of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals as the latest instance highlighting the lack of protection for the religious needs of Americans in the workplace.

The federal appellate panel’s decision came in the case of Balint vs. Carson City Sheriff’s Department. The case arises from the request of a Seventh Day Adventist, Lisette Balint, an applicant offered a position with the Carson City Sheriff’s Department that the Department accommodate her religious practice of not working from sundown Friday through Saturday by exempting her from the Department’s seniority-based work-shift assignment system.

The Department refused to accommodate Ms. Balint’s religious needs. Ms. Balint sued the Department under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act for religious discrimination. The district court ruled against Ms. Balint, holding that the Department was not obliged to accommodate her since ignoring the seniority system would constitute an “undue hardship” for the employer.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld this ruling, holding that a seniority-based work-shift system is, per se, a defense to religious accommodation claims. The entire Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reheard the case and issued its decision last week.

The court did send the case back to the district court and did rule that a seniority-based shift system is not, per se, a defense to religious accommodation claim and that the court must examine whether accommodating Ms. Balint would impose an undue hardship on the Department. However, following Supreme Court precedent, the appellate panel also recognized that any hardship beyond the most minimal effort constitutes an “undue hardship.” Thus, it is more than likely Ms. Balint’s claim will fail again at the district court level.

Nathan Diament, director of the Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, issued the following statement in reaction to the decision:

While we appreciate the fact that the Ninth Circuit rejected the notion that a seniority system automatically exempts an employer from even considering accommodating employees’ religious needs, it is offers little respite. Even in this ruling, the court held again that employer’s need only exert the most minimal effort to address employees’ religious concerns. Thus, religious Americans will continue to be faced with choices between their faith and their livelihood. The Orthodox Union is working with concerned members of congress to address this affront to religious freedom and to ensure that religious Americans are no longer faced with this un-American choice.