Friday, December 26, 2014

Jehovah's Witness Title VII Claim Survives Summary Judgment Motion

In Shepherd v. Gannondale, (WD PA, Dec. 22, 2014), a Pennsylvania federal district court refused to grant summary judgment to defendant, a Catholic residential care facility, in a suit by a former employee, a Jehovah's Witness, alleging religious discrimination.  Plaintiff Sharon Shepherd worked as a Fiscal Supervisor for defendant, Gannondale, until she was terminated or forced to resign.  Gannondale is a ministry of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity which provided holistic and therapeutic care for young women placed by the court. It operated using the "Sanctuary Model of Trauma Informed Care" which involves "community meetings" which all clients and staff were required to attend. Shepherd stopped attending community meetings in the Fall of 2012 because she concluded they involved too much "anti-Christian content" for her to be a part of them.  She disagreed in general with the Sanctuary Model because it was not based on Biblical teachings.

The court concluded that Shepherd had stated a prima facie case of disparate treatment based on religion as well as a claim of failure to accommodate her desire to be excused from community meetings.  The court said in part:
Defendant appears to be invoking a sort of “esprit de corps” argument that has never been applied outside the context of the military and the police force....  No doubt every employer would argue that allowing even one employee to be excused from an organization-wide practice would undermine that practice as a whole and might encourage other employees to seek exemptions. Nevertheless, Title VII requires reasonable accommodation of employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs unless an employer demonstrates that such accommodation would subject it to an undue hardship..... Defendant’s argument would allow the undue hardship exception to swallow the rule of religious accommodation and it is rejected.