Q: I read recently that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requires that trucking companies make accommodations for drivers whose religion prohibits them from handling certain types of shipments.
The case I read about involves Islamic drivers who refused to haul loads of alcoholic beverages because it violates their religion. The carrier fired them for refusing the loads, but the EEOC said this was religious discrimination and therefore illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
We, too, are a motor carrier. Sometimes we also handle shipments of alcohol, and we have several drivers who are Islamic. So far none of our drivers has expressed a problem with any of our loads, but I’m concerned about the impact of this EEOC ruling. Can you give me some guidance?
A: There is indeed a case such as you describe. It isn’t the first time this issue has come up before the EEOC, but the previous case was settled out of court so it isn’t binding on anyone.
In fact, nothing the EEOC does is binding on anybody until and unless the agency goes to court and has its position upheld, which is where this matter is now. The EEOC has filed a lawsuit to have the carrier declared in violation of the law for firing drivers for their refusal to handle loads of alcoholic beverages. This case is pending in court.
In my opinion, however, the EEOC is unlikely to prevail. The statute does in fact require employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees’ religious conduct, even if such conduct would ordinarily be cause for dismissal if not prompted by religious considerations, provided they can do so without undue hardship. In the past, however, this has been applied strictly to personal conduct — such as working on the Sabbath, wearing religiously ordained garb, etc. See, for example, Chalmers v. Tulon Co. of Richmond, 101 F. 3d 1012 (U.S.C.A. 4, 1986).
This situation is different. The drivers aren’t being asked to consume alcohol, nor to haul it for their own consumption, so this goes beyond personal conduct. It falls under the heading of imposing their personal beliefs on others who might be the expected consumers of the alcohol, and the law definitely doesn’t allow for that.
Consider that if this EEOC ruling were upheld in court how it might affect the situation of others whose religious beliefs might be considered to forbid them from hauling a variety of other products. A Jewish driver, for example, might decline a load containing pork or shellfish, a Hindu driver might refuse to move a load of beef, a Mormon might not be willing to handle a load of coffee or tea, both of which contain caffeine, and so forth.
In my view, it goes beyond what the law intended for drivers to pass judgment, whether for religious or other reasons, on the cargoes they handle. If this ruling were upheld, consider the driver whose religion prohibits abortion. What if such a driver were asked to deliver medical equipment and supplies to a hospital that offered abortion services? Would such a driver be justified in refusing to make the delivery?
As I see it, the law doesn’t offer drivers a dispensation on religious grounds for their refusal to handle any load, provided, of course, that it’s otherwise legal. My view accordingly is that the court in which the EEOC has filed will have no real option but to uphold the firing of drivers refusing to handle the loads of alcohol. To do otherwise would be to open the door to a wealth of problems.
In this context, the Civil Rights Act is intended to apply the principle of tolerance so central to American law to institutions that are themselves intolerant in nature. Religious codes of conduct don’t distinguish between believers and nonbelievers, but are rather set forth to apply to everyone. In American jurisprudence, however, although each individual is free to follow his or her own beliefs for him or herself, in non-religious matters all are treated equally, and must abide by a common standard outside their private religious practices.
To invoke religion as grounds for refusing to perform an ordinary workplace function thus wouldn’t appear to be justified under the statute.
Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at 5201 Whippoorwill Lane, Johns Island, S.C. 29455; phone, 843-559-1277; e-mail, BarrettTrn@aol.com. Contact him to order the most recent 351-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2010.