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Cases of flight attendant and Kentucky court clerk raise issue of accommodating religion in the workplace

A Muslim flight attendant recently filed an employment discrimination complaint against her employer, ExpressJet, because she claimed that it unlawfully refused to accommodate her religious beliefs.  The flight attendant, Charee Stanley, claims that it would violate her religious beliefs if she served alcohol to passengers on flights.  According to Ms. Stanley, ExpressJet suspended her because she refused to serve alcohol to passengers.

Ms. Stanley claims that before her suspension she had worked out an arrangement with her co-workers, at the direction of her supervisor, where her co-worker would serve alcohol to a passenger, instead of Ms. Stanley, if the passenger ordered an alcoholic beverage.  Ms. Stanley says that this arrangement worked just fine until a co-worker complained that Ms. Stanley was not doing her job.  This same co-worker allegedly also said in her complaint that Ms. Stanley carried a book with “foreign writings” and wore a headdress.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to accommodate the religious beliefs of their employees provided that the accommodation does not create an undue hardship for the employer.  Ms. Stanley contends that her requested accommodation would not create an undue hardship for ExpressJet because she and her co-workers were managing just fine until this one co-worker filed a complaint.

“What this case comes down to is no one should have to choose between their career and religion and it’s incumbent upon employers to provide a safe environment where employees can feel they can practice their religion freely,” said Lena Masri, an attorney with Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Interestingly, this case against ExpressJet is in the news at the same time as the case of the County Clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky.  The Clerk, Kim Davis, refused to issue marriage licenses because she claimed it would violate her religious beliefs to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  A federal court held that Ms. Davis’ actions violated the constitutional rights of same-sex couples who sought marriage licenses in her office and held her in contempt when she refused to comply with the court’s orders. 

Ms. Davis’ case bears some similarity to Ms. Stanley’s but there are also some important differences.  First, Ms. Davis refused to permit anyone in her office to issue marriage licenses.  Ms. Stanley, on the other hand, did not prevent alcohol from being served to passengers on her flights—she just was not the person who served it.  Second, the denial of marriage licenses to same-sex couples infringed on those couples’ constitutional rights.  The passengers, on the other hand, did not have a constitutional right to be served alcohol on their flights.  Third, unlike Ms. Stanley, it does not appear that Ms. Davis asserted that anyone had violated her rights under Title VII.  That may have been because Title VII does not provide protections to elected officials and Ms. Davis is an elected official.