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Both Sides Lose in Religious Discrimination Claim

religion-IR.jpgTwo Muslim truck drivers were fired for refusing to ship alcohol because of their religious beliefs. They sued their employer, Star Transport, Inc. and ultimately were successful in a big win for the federal government's Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which brought the case. Each of the men was asked by their dispatcher to pick up a load of beer - they said that they couldn't because of their Islamic religion.

Both were fired for refusing to do their jobs. The EEOC claimed that the trucking company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for firing the men for observing their religious beliefs. It also claimed that the company did not give the men "reasonable accommodations" that would not have imposed a hardship on it, for example swapping the two men with other drivers able and available to do the pickup. Star Transport conceded that it could have done a driver swap without a problem. But a jury awarded both men $20,000 dollars each in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitive damages. Star Transport went out of business, so the victory was an empty one.

One of the important "plusses" of this case is the protection of the right to practice religious beliefs in the workplace. One of the EEOC lawyers working on the case described the effects on the workers as "catastrophic," because it forced them to choose between upholding their religion or losing their jobs. This case also serves as a harsh warning to employers to be respectful of their employees' religions and to make accommodations if and when it can be done.

On the other hand, the large award of punitive damages seems excessive and unnecessary. It was a harsh penalty for a company's failure to provide "reasonable accommodations" for two employees and may have caused the trucking company to go out of business. Whether it was a "solution" for a civil rights violation is questionable. With the collaboration of Lauren Bland, Rutgers School of Law Newark candidate for a JD degree in May 2017. She is Staff Editor of the Rutgers Law Review.

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