You’d Better Believe That Atheists Are Protected From Religious Discrimination

By Kathleen Jennings (kjj@wimlaw.com)

A case out of Kentucky reminds us that religious discrimination claims can be asserted by atheists who are subjected to harassment on the basis of their beliefs. In Queen v. City of Bowling Green , W.D. Ky., No. 1:16-CV-00131, (7/20/18), a firefighter sued the City of Bowling Green, Kentucky for religious discrimination. The firefighter, who is an atheist, alleged that supervisors and co-workers made hostile and demeaning remarks concerning his atheism and about non-Christians generally, and that the harassment was so severe that he was eventually forced to resign his employment. Among the remarks he alleged were a fire captain’s statement that theists “deserved to burn,” and two chiefs told him that he should join a church and “get right with Jesus.” In addition, he was forced to participate in Bible study during meals at his fire station.

The district court denied the City’s motion for summary judgment, sending the case to a jury trial. In his decision, the District Judge wrote that “[a]lthough atheism is the absence of religious beliefs, it is still a protected class for purpose of Title VII.” Other federal courts, including the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Fifth and Seventh Circuits, have held that Title VII protects atheist employees against religious discrimination. For example, the Fifth Circuit ruled that an employer unlawfully required an atheist to attend staff meetings that including religious talk and prayer.

The takeaway: Employers should respect the religious beliefs of their employees, and in some cases, make reasonable accommodations for those beliefs.

Kathleen Jennings, Principal is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. She defends employers in sexual harassment and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

©2018 Wimberly Lawson

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