No number, no lawsuit

Tossing a lawsuit alleging religious discrimination, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that an applicant could not sue after refusing to provide his Social Security number to a prospective employer. The plaintiff, an applicant for a position with an energy company, claimed that he had no number because he “disclaimed and disavowed it” on account of his sincerely held religious beliefs.

The company’s refusal to hire the plaintiff violated Title VII and Ohio state law, the complaint charged, requesting both injunctive relief in the form of a job and monetary damages. A federal district court judge dismissed the lawsuit, and the federal appellate panel affirmed.

Courts considering the issue apply a two-step analysis, the Sixth Circuit explained. First, the court determines whether the plaintiff established a “prima facie case of religious discrimination,” which requires proof that the plaintiff “(1) holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement; (2) has informed the employer about the conflicts; and (3) was discharged or disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting employment requirement.” If the plaintiff manages to establish a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to show it could not “reasonably accommodate” the religious beliefs without “undue hardship.”

This suit failed under the first step, the panel said, because the Internal Revenue Code mandates that employers collect and provide the Social Security numbers of their employees. Because the company’s collection of the plaintiff’s number was a “requirement imposed by law” and not an “employment requirement,” the court had no need to consider the sincerity of the plaintiff’s beliefs.

The panel also noted that every other federal appellate court to consider the issue has concluded “that Title VII does not require an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs if such accommodation would violate a federal statute,” citing decisions from the Fourth, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits, as well as federal district courts in Michigan and Virginia.

All of the courts have arrived “at the same, sensible conclusion: ‘

[A]n employer is not liable under Title VII when accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs would require the employer to violate federal … law,” the Sixth Circuit wrote. “This conclusion is consistent with Title VII’s text, which says nothing that might license an employer to disregard other federal statutes in the name of reasonably accommodating an employee’s religious practices.”

For employers, the decision provides even greater peace of mind. With five federal appellate courts in agreement that a religious discrimination claim will not stand against an employer that complies with federal requirements to collect an applicant’s Social Security number, companies do not have to worry about the merits of a Title VII lawsuit under such circumstances.

Read the opinion.

Regional religiosity and financial scandals

A July 2, 2010 article in the Nashville Business Journal and other publications reported that a study by accounting faculty members Sean McQuire, Thomas Omer and Nathan Sharp at the Mays Business School of Texas A&M University revealed that the more religious the state, the less chance there is of financial malfeasance.  The researchers concluded that for every 10% increase in the population’s religiosity, the odds that a firm headquartered there will be sued over accounting issues decreases by 49%. According to a Gallop poll of residents who said that religion was important to them, Mississippi, at 86% was number one, followed by Alabama at 84%. New York was last, at 44%.

The study also found that small and medium-sized firms tend to use religion as a self-regulating mechanism in the absence of more formal external monitoring.  Sharp cautioned that the study is more a measure of an overall accounting approach among multiple firms of various sizes in the Bible Belt and cannot predict massive frauds such as those at Birmingham-based HealthSouth Corp., Clinton, Miss.-based WorldCom and Houston-based Enron. “We would view them as anomalies,” Sharp said. “We focused on smaller, systemic aggressive accounting occurring as almost a part of doing business. On average, when you hold everything constant, accounting practices are less aggressive in areas with high religiosity.” Sharp added that the study did not account for people using religion itself as a means to defraud.

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