Published on:

Religious Discrimination Cases in New Jersey and Court Inquiries into the Sincerity of a Worker’s Religious Belief

We are currently only eight weeks away from the start of Ramadan (March 22nd.) Ramadan is the most sacred month in the Islamic calendar and Ramadan practices (such as fasting and fast-breaking, prayer, and reflection) represent religious observations of the highest order for Muslims. Here in New Jersey, the law says that employers should make reasonable accommodations for Muslim workers’ Ramadan practices unless those accommodations would impose an undue hardship on the employer. If your employer fails to meet this legal obligation, then you should contact a New Jersey religious discrimination lawyer about your legal options.

The law also says that employers cannot use a worker’s non-traditional manner of practicing a particular religion (like Islam) to claim that the worker’s belief was not “sincere,” as a recent religious discrimination case demonstrates.

A.J., the plaintiff in the case, was a Muslim and a correctional police officer at the state’s juvenile detention center in Jamesburg. In early April 2018, A.J. was selected for a random drug test. Just a few weeks later, the officer was selected again. Because the second test request fell at the end of Ramadan (meaning that the officer was fasting at that time,) he did not complete the second drug screening.

The employer “immediately and indefinitely suspended” the officer.

The officer brought a lawsuit under both federal law (Title VII) and state law (the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination) based on his employer’s failure to accommodate his religious beliefs.

In any religious failure-to-accommodate case, the worker must prove three crucial elements: a “sincere religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement,” that he notified his employer of the conflict, and that he “was disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting job requirement.”

A.J.’s employer argued that he didn’t meet the first element. The employer highlighted that the second drug test actually fell on Eid ul Fitr, meaning that Ramadan had ended, and the officer was under no religion-related restrictions that would impede his providing a urine sample. (Generally speaking, the tenets of Islam call for feasting, rather than fasting, on Eid.)

A.J., however, had a different way of worshipping Allah. In his observance of Islam, he construed many of these fasting obligations as discretionary. As a result, he had broken his fast on four or five days during Ramadan and it was his belief that he was required to “make up” those days of fasting after the end of Ramadan.

Courts Shouldn’t Try to Determine if You ‘Correctly Perceived the Commands’ of Your Faith

Courts are, generally speaking, highly averse to parsing whether you are or are not a legitimate practitioner of the faith you profess. Specifically, the U.S. Supreme Court has expressly instructed in the past that “it is not within the judicial function and judicial competence to inquire whether the [plaintiff] . . . correctly perceived the commands of [his] . . . faith.” That’s true even if some of your practices seem at odds with how the majority of your fellow practitioners meet their religious obligations.

Courts are very limited in the extent to which they may “inquire into the veracity of a plaintiff’s religious practices on a motion for summary judgment.” The law acknowledges that questions about the sincerity of an individual’s religious faith are inherently subjective and judges should be very reluctant to grant motions for summary judgment based on matters of subjective intent. Essentially, the law says that courts should award summary judgment in cases like these only when “a reasonable jury could only conclude” that the worker’s claims of religion were bogus.

That’s a pretty high hurdle for an employer to clear. A.J.’s version of Islam might be something that many imams, sufis, and other teachers of Islam would find unconventional at best and downright incorrect at worst. But that isn’t the point. The point is that a reasonable juror could look at the officer’s assertions and, however unconventional, find them to constitute a sincerely held religious belief. In essence, at the summary judgment phase, the employer must establish that your invocation of religion is a disingenuous ploy designed to avoid the job requirement in dispute.

Religious practice and observance of religious obligations are, by their very nature, deeply personal. Your employer does have the right to discredit your religious practices as insincere or not bona fide simply because they do not follow the standards followed by many of the other practitioners of your faith. If your employer has failed to accommodate your sincere religious beliefs, the knowledgeable New Jersey religious discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates are here to help. To find out more, contact us online or at (866) 530-4330 to set up a free and confidential consultation today.

Contact Information