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To establish a prima facie religious accommodation claim, a plaintiff must establish that: (1) he or she has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement; (2) he or she informed the employer of this belief; (3) he or she was disciplined for failure to comply with the conflicting employment requirement. If the employee establishes a prima facie case, the burden then shifts to the employer to show that it could not accommodate the plaintiff's religious needs without undue hardship.
Chalmers worked for Tulon from October 1988 until September 21, 1993. Tulon's business involves the manufacturing of drill bits and routers used in the printed circuit board industry. Tulon maintains a number of service centers throughout the United States, including a center in Richmond, Virginia where Chalmers worked. During Chalmers' years at Tulon, the Richmond center employed from six to fifteen employees. Chalmers began her employment as a repoint operator, and, after three years, was promoted to supervisor. During her employment with Tulon, although Chalmers had some issues with her job training, she believed Tulon treated her fairly with respect to compensation, benefits, and job assignments. Prior to her discharge, Chalmers never felt anyone at the company discriminated against her, or harassed her because of her religious beliefs or practices. As repoint supervisor, Chalmers was the only management-level employee working regularly at the Richmond center. Chalmers' immediate supervisor, Richard C. LaMantia, was in charge of sales throughout the eastern part of the United States but, according to Chalmers, visited Richmond only a few days every few months. At all other times, Chalmers was responsible for the operation of the Richmond center. Chalmers has been a Baptist all of her life, and in June 1984 became an evangelical Christian. As an evangelical Christian, Chalmers believes she should share the gospel and looks for opportunities to do so. Chalmers felt that LaMantia respected her, generally refraining from using profanity around her, while around other employees who did not care, "he would say whatever he wanted to say." Chalmers stated that "in the past we have talked about God." Chalmers further testified that "starting off" she and LaMantia had discussed religion about "everytime he came to the service center . . . . maybe every three months" but "then, towards the end maybe not as frequently." LaMantia never discouraged these conversations, expressed discomfort with them, or indicated that they were improper. In one of these conversations, LaMantia told Chalmers that three people had approached him about accepting Christ. Two or three years after this conversation, Chalmers "knew it was time for [LaMantia] to accept God." She believed LaMantia had told customers information about the turnaround time for a job when he knew that information was not true. Chalmers testified that she was "led by the Lord" to write LaMantia and tell him "there were things he needed to get right with God, and that was one thing that . . . he needed to get right with him." She thus mailed LaMantia a letter at his home about how “one thing the Lord wants [him] to do is to get [his] life right with him.” Chalmers acknowledged that LaMantia had never said or done anything that signaled to her that he consented to a letter like this. When asked whether she knew "what Rich LaMantia's religious beliefs are," Chalmers responded that she knew "he believed in God, that's about it.” She did not know his religious affiliation or whether he attended church regularly. Nevertheless, Chalmers felt that she could write the above letter to LaMantia at his home because of their "personal relationship" and their conversation two or three years earlier concerning people approaching LaMantia about accepting Christ. On September 10, 1993 when Chalmers' letter arrived at LaMantia's home, he was out of town on Tulon business and his wife opened and read the letter in his absence. LaMantia became distraught, interpreting the references to her husband's improper conduct as indicating that he was committing adultery. In tears, she called Chalmers and asked her if LaMantia was having an affair with someone in the New Hampshire area where LaMantia supervised another Tulon facility. Chalmers told Mrs. LaMantia that she did not know about any affair because she was in the Richmond area. Id. When Mrs. LaMantia asked her what she had meant by writing that there was something in LaMantia's life that "he needed to get right with God," Chalmers explained about the turnaround time problem. LaMantia responded that she would take the letter and rip it up so LaMantia could not read it. Chalmers answered, "Please don't do that, the Lord led me to send this to Rich, so let him read it." The telephone conversation then ended. Mrs. LaMantia promptly telephoned her husband, interrupting a Tulon business presentation, to accuse him of infidelity. LaMantia, in turn, called the Richmond office and asked to speak with Chalmers; she was in back and by the time she reached the telephone, LaMantia had hung up. Chalmers then telephoned the LaMantias' home and, when she failed to reach anyone, left a message on the answering machine that she was sorry "if the letter offended" LaMantia or his wife and that she "did not mean to offend him or make him upset about the letter.” LaMantia also telephoned Craig A. Faber, Vice President of Administration at Tulon. LaMantia told Faber that the letter had caused him personal anguish and placed a serious strain on his marriage. LaMantia informed Faber that he felt he could no longer work with Chalmers. Id. LaMantia recommended that Tulon management terminate Chalmers' employment.
While investigating LaMantia's complaint, Faber discovered that Chalmers had sent a second letter, on the same day as she had sent the letter to LaMantia, to another Tulon employee. That employee, Brenda Combs, worked as a repoint operator in the Richmond office and Chalmers was her direct supervisor. J.A. 53, 56-57. Chalmers knew that Combs was convalescing at her home, suffering from an undiagnosed illness after giving birth out of wedlock. In the letter, Chalmers wrote about God being a God of Love and a God of Wrath who allows things to happen to people who sin against Him. Upon receiving the letter Combs wept. Faber discussed the letter with Combs who told him that she had been "crushed by the tone of the letter." Id. Combs believed that Chalmers implied that "an immoral lifestyle" had caused her illness and found Chalmers' letter "cruel." Faber consulted with other members of upper management and concluded that the letters caused a negative impact on working relationships, disrupted the workplace, and inappropriately invaded employee privacy. On behalf of Tulon, Faber then sent Chalmers a memorandum, informing her that she was terminated from her position. Chalmers filed suit, alleging that Tulon discriminated against her based on her religion, in violation of Title VII. The trial court dismissed Chalmers’ suit.
Is Chalmers’ conduct excusable under the accommodation theory?
Chalmers cannot satisfy the second element of the prima facie test. She has forecast no evidence that she notified Tulon that her religious beliefs required her to send personal, disturbing letters to her co-workers. Therefore she did not allow the company any sort of opportunity to attempt reasonable accommodation of her beliefs. Although a rule justifying discharge of an employee because she has disturbed co-workers requires careful application in the religious discrimination context (many religious practices might be perceived as "disturbing" to others), Chalmers, particularly as a supervisor, is expected to know that sending personal, distressing letters to co-workers' homes, criticizing them for assertedly ungodly, shameful conduct, would violate employment policy. Accordingly, the failure of the company to expressly forbid supervisors from disturbing other employees in this way, provided Chalmers with no basis for failing to notify Tulon that her religious beliefs required her to write such letters. Further, knowledge that an employee has strong religious beliefs does not place an employer on notice that she might engage in any religious activity, no matter how unusual. Chalmers concedes that she did not know of any other employee who had ever written distressing or judgmental letters to co-workers before, and that nothing her co-workers had said or done indicated that such letters were acceptable. Accordingly, any knowledge Tulon may have possessed regarding Chalmers' beliefs could not reasonably have put it on notice that she would write and send accusatory letters to co-workers' homes.
Further, even assuming arguendo that Chalmers had established a prima facie case, her religious accommodation claim would nonetheless fail because this conduct was not the type that an employer can possibly accommodate, even with notice. Typically, religious accommodation suits involve religious conduct, such as observing the Sabbath, wearing religious garb, etc., that result in indirect and minimal burdens, if any, on other employees. An employer can often accommodate such needs without inconveniencing or unduly burdening other employees. In a case like the one at hand, however, where an employee contends that she has a religious need to impose personally and directly on fellow employees, invading their privacy and criticizing their personal lives, the employer is placed between a rock and a hard place. If Tulon had the power to authorize Chalmers to write such letters, and if Tulon had granted Chalmers' request to write the letters, the company would subject itself to possible suits from Combs and LaMantia claiming that Chalmers' conduct violated their religious freedoms or constituted religious harassment. Chalmers' supervisory position at the Richmond office heightens the possibility that Tulon (through Chalmers) would appear to be imposing religious beliefs on employees. Thus, even if Chalmers had notified Tulon that her religion required her to send the letters at issue here to her co-workers, Tulon would have been unable to accommodate that conduct.