The Washington Nationals were hit with a $300,000 federal religious discrimination lawsuit on Tuesday. The complaint – available here – alleges that the team illegally discriminated against three former ushers – all Seventh-day Adventists – due to their religious beliefs. Although the team allowed the men to miss games during the 2013 season in order to observe their sabbath (sundown Friday through sundown Saturday), the Nationals allegedly fired the three in 2014 when their religious beliefs prevented them from working at least 80% of the team’s games.
Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are generally prohibited from discriminating against workers on the basis of their religious beliefs. In applying the law to cases like the one filed against the Nationals, courts typically require that an employer reasonably accommodate its employee’s religious beliefs whenever possible. This means, for instance, that an employer should generally allow an employee to take a particular day off work for religious observation, so long as this preferential scheduling does not impose an “undue hardship” on the business (such as by significantly increasing the company’s costs, or requiring other employees to work more than their fair share of the hours in a week).
The plaintiffs’ suit alleges that the Nationals were willing to reasonably accommodate their religious beliefs in 2013, setting aside the requirement that ushers work 80% of the team’s games in order to allow the men to observe their sabbath. The men contend that the team changed its policy in 2014, however, and terminated their employment due to their failure to have worked a sufficient number of games the previous season. The suit also asserts that the team could easily allow the plaintiffs to observe their sabbath, as Friday evening and Saturday games are particularly desirable work shifts for ushers, many of whom also maintain other day jobs.
So the new suit would appear to assert a credible case of religious discrimination against the Nationals. That having been said, the team will undoubtedly present another side to the story when it responds to the suit in court. For instance, the team could allege that the three plaintiffs were not retained for the 2014 season for reasons other than their scheduling limitations (such as for poor performance). The team might also argue that allowing the men to miss every Friday evening or Saturday afternoon home game would in fact impose an undue hardship on its business, despite the plaintiffs’ claims that there are plenty of readily available replacements for those shifts.
Although the team could have legitimate defenses to assert on its behalf, it still would not be surprising if the Nationals ultimately decide to settle the case. Being charged with religious discrimination is never a good thing from a public relations perspective. Moreover, despite the plaintiffs’ request for $300,000 in damages, other parts of the suit suggest that they may really just be hoping to be reinstated to their positions for the 2015 season. Time will tell, then, if the team ultimately decides that it’s easier to rehire the men in this case than it is to contest their discrimination claims on their merits.
Nathaniel Grow is an Associate Professor of Business Law and Ethics at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. He is the author of Baseball on Trial: The Origin of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption, as well as a number of sports-related law review articles. You can follow him on Twitter @NathanielGrow.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not express the views or opinions of Indiana University.
Science will fly us to mars, religion flew us into buildings.
And trolls will scream FIRST!
I’m pretty sure science made those airplanes.
…and the buildings.
Coincidence? I think NOT!
Just follow the money, man. Follow the money.