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Ninth Circuit Rejects Employee's One-sided Demands for Religious Accomidation as an Undue Hardship

Volume 3, Issue 1
January 15, 2004

On January 6, 2004, in Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard Company, No. 01-35795 (9th Cir. Jan. 6, 2004), the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit approved an employer's rejection of a devout Christian's demand for a religious accommodation that demeaned and threatened homosexual employees and violated the employer's diversity policy.

Peterson was a long-term employee of Hewlett-Packard. Hewlett-Packard began a diversity campaign which included displaying a series of posters. The first series of posters showed photographs of employees above captions such as "Black", "Blonde", "Old", "Gay", or "Hispanic". The next series of posters showed photographs of the same employees along with a description of their personal interests and the slogan, "Diversity is Our Strength."

Peterson believed that homosexual activities violated the Bible's commandments and that he was responsible for exposing "when confronted with sin". As such, in response to the posters that read "Gay", he posted two Biblical scriptures on an overhead bin in his work cubicle that were printed in large typeface and visible to all who passed by his cubicle. Peterson later posted a third passage from Leviticus 20:13, which states:

If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be put upon them.

Peterson's supervisor removed the passages, determining that they could be offensive to other employees and that they violated the Company's policy against harassment. Peterson's supervisor and managers then held a series of meetings with Peterson during which he and they explained their respective positions. Peterson admitted that the messages condemned homosexual behavior and that in posting them, he intended to be hurtful. Peterson agreed to remove the passages only if the Company removed the posters. When his managers refused, he stated, "as long as [Hewlett-Packard] is condoning [homosexuality] I'm going to oppose it . . . ." After time off to consider his position, he returned to work, posted the passages and refused to remove them. After further meetings, he was discharged for insubordination.

Peterson sued, alleging that Hewlett-Packard failed to accommodate his religious beliefs and discriminated against him.

Addressing the accommodation issue, the Ninth Circuit determined that both of Peterson's proposed accommodations of either removing the posters or allowing him to post the Biblical passages imposed an undue hardship upon the employer. The Court recognized that allowing Peterson to post the passages would have compelled Hewlett-Packard to post messages intended to demean and harass Peterson's co-workers. The Court held that an employer need not accommodate an employee's religious beliefs if doing so would result in discrimination against his co-workers or deprive them of contractual or other statutory rights. While the Court recognized that an employer must tolerate some degree of employee discomfort in the process of accommodating employee's religious beliefs, it determined that an employer need not accept the burdens that would result from actions that demean or degrade members of its workforce.

The Court further recognized that the second accommodation would have forced the Company to remove sexual orientation from its workplace diversity program. The Court found that this choice created an undue hardship "because it would have inhibited [the employer's] efforts to attract and retain a qualified, diverse workforce, which the company reasonably views as vital to its commercial success". Thus, the Court rejected Peterson's claim of failure to accommodate.

The Court also denied Peterson's claim of discrimination. The Court rejected his claim that the diversity campaign was "a crusade to convert fundamentalist Christians" by promoting a homosexual lifestyle, and determined that the Company's efforts to eradicate sexual orientation discrimination were "entirely consistent with the goals and objectives of our civil rights statutes". The Court disagreed with Peterson's contention that the managers harassed him in order to convince him to change his religious beliefs, pointing to the evidence which demonstrated that Hewlett-Packard's managers repeatedly acknowledged the sincerity of his beliefs, did not object to his anti-gay views expressed in a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, or prohibit him from parking his car in the company lot despite its bumper sticker stating, "Sodomy is not a family value". Instead, the managers simply asked Peterson to treat his coworkers with respect, remove the passages, and refrain from violating the Company's harassment policy, which uniformly applied to all employees.

The Peterson case reflects the difficult balancing determinations an employer is required to make in accommodating conflicting ideologies and lifestyles in its workforce. Here, Hewlett-Packard proceeded with caution, attempted to explore several options with the employee, and narrowly focused its requests of Peterson. Peterson, on the other hand, took an extreme all-or-nothing approach which the employer reasonably refused. In upholding the employer's decisions, the Ninth Circuit provides common-sense restrictions upon an employer's duty to accommodate religious beliefs which are consistent with public policy and the civil rights statutes - an employer's duty to accommodate religious beliefs does not extend to contradicting its diversity policies.

Employer Report articles are for general information only; they are not intended and should not be construed to be legal advice. Reading or replying to such articles does not establish an attorney-client relationship. In addition, because the subject matters and applicable laws discussed in Employer Report articles are often in a state of change and not always applicable to every type of business entity or organization, readers should consult with counsel before making decisions based on the same.