An Illinois jury awarded $240,000 in damages and back pay to two former truck drivers who claimed religious discrimination when they were fired in 2009 after refusing to make beer deliveries.
A jury was convened to determine damages after US District Court Judge James E. Shadid ruled in favor of Mahad Abass Mohamed and Abdkiarim Hassan Bulshale when Star Transport admitted liability in March. The men, both of whom are Somali-American Muslims, were represented by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers must make accommodations for workers' religious beliefs unless doing so would impose "undue hardship" on the business.
As UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh explained to The Washington Post, the trucking company admitted that drivers often switched their assignments, meaning it would have been reasonable to accommodate the men's request, rather than firing them.
The jury delivered its verdict in 45 minutes, on Oct. 20. However, the case appears to have picked up national attention when Fox News' Megyn Kelly invited the channel's legal analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano on air Monday, where the two criticized the government-appointed agency for cherry picking cases to serve a political agenda.
"It’s unfortunate when the government interferes in a private dispute over religious views and takes sides, and chooses one religion over another," Judge Napolitano said, responding to Ms. Kelly's accusation that the government had not provided Christians who object to workplace demands with the same protections as the Muslim truck drivers.
Kelly specifically cited the cases of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk briefly jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses after the Supreme Court's decision to legalize gay marriage nationwide, and private bakers' disputed rights to refuse serving gay couples.
Critics who told Ms. Davis "If you can't do the job, don't take the job," or resign, ought to be saying the same thing to workers of other faiths, Kelly said.
According to Professor Volokh, the US Civil Rights Act "rejects" the idea that employees should just resign when their beliefs come into conflict with their responsibilities, and has often been used to protect Christians: a 2012 settlement, for example, when the EEOC represented a Jehovah's Witness fired for refusing to raise the American flag, which violated his religious views.
However, as both liberal and conservative analysts have pointed out, under the Civil Rights Act, elected public officials are exempt from some of the law's protections, although Kentucky law restores some of those rights to elected officials like Davis.
County clerks are asked to “certify that [couples have] met the state requirements for marriage. So her religious opposition to same-sex marriage is absolutely irrelevant in this context," Columbia law professor Katherine Franke argued on National Public Radio, contrasting Davis' personal views of marriage with the legal definition. "Couples in Kentucky are being asked to pay the price of her religious observance.”
Davis was released from jail after 5 days, and permitted to return to work, where her deputies continued to issue marriage licenses whose language had been slightly altered, but, as her lawyers argue in the ongoing case, still legal.
But religious discrimination lawsuits, from workers of all faiths, seem unlikely to fizzle from public view any time soon.
Esquire writer Dave Holmes suggests that such lawsuits present an enticing political strategy, though for quite a different reason than what the Fox commentators allege.
When gay couples "are withheld the right to marry, they lose something real," he wrote last month. On the other hand, the way rights cases have been framed in the past, gay marriage opponents merely lose "a concept," a distinction Holmes says helped Americans accept the legalization of gay marriage.
But once the issues are framed as workplace discrimination, he argues, something very real is at stake, that everyone can understand and appreciate regardless of creed or culture: a job.