Good God! MBTA Unlawfully Discriminates Against Religious Applicant

In Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority v. Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination,, SJC-09893 (Jan. 8, 2008), the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the transit agency violated state anti-discrimination law when it refused to hire a Seventh-Day Adventist for his inability to work on the Sabbath (Friday sundown until Saturday at sundown).

The Massachusetts anti-discrimination law, known as General Laws Chapter 151B, §4, protects employees and applicants from discrimination by employers on the basis of religion. Once an employee notifies an employer that an employer’s practice requires him or her to violate a religious practice compelled by sincerely held belief, the employer must either a) accommodate the complainant or b) prove that accommodation of the employee’s religious obligations imposes “an undue hardship” on the employer. In analyzing the employer’s defense of undue hardship, the MCAD “must focus on the particular nature and operations of the employer’s business” and “whether the employer could have exercised its managerial discretion in such a way that the employee’s religious obligations could have been reasonably accommodated.”

In this case, the MBTA failed to explore any reasonable accommodation of the applicant’s religious inability to work on the Sabbath, namely allowing the prospective employee to swap Sabbath shifts with other bus drivers. The SJC agreed that the MBTA faces an undue hardship if accommodation of religion forces it to leave a shift uncovered or to pay overtime to a relief driver. But the SJC chided the MBTA for failing to conduct even a cursory investigation into whether shift-swapping is feasible. The anti-discrimination law, the court noted, expressly contemplates observance of the Sabbath as a protected religious activity that may entitle an employee to a reasonable accommodation. Swaps therefore may be the simplest cost-free method of accommodating this religious practice.

The SJC left the door open for an employer in future circumstances to show, following an investigation, that shift-swapping was unlikely to adequately enable the employee to not work on the Sabbath. The MBTA conducted no such investigation here. The SJC, however, declined to that an employer automatically violates Chapter 151B by failing to explore options for accommodating the employee’s asserted religious practice.

Finally, the Court appeared to indicate that a collective bargaining agreement may be a defense to an employer’s claim of undue hardship, if for instance, the CBA denied or restricted the practice of voluntary swaps.

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