United Airlines settles religious discrimination case against Buddhist pilot


By KAREN MICHAEL Special Envoy

United Airlines has agreed to pay a Buddhist pilot $305,000 to settle a religious discrimination case filed on his behalf by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The pilot would have been diagnosed with alcohol dependence and, as a result, would have lost the required medical certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

United Airlines participates in the Human Intervention Motivational Study (HIMS) program, which, according to its website, is “an occupational addiction treatment program designed to help all pilots get back into the cockpit.”

To complete the HIMS program, pilots with substance abuse issues seeking re-certification from the FAA must regularly attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

According to the AA website, AA’s “Twelve Steps” are a set of spiritual principles. When practiced as a way of life, they can expel the obsession with drinking and allow the sufferer to recover from alcoholism. A.A. characterizes among the Twelve Steps that members, “Come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity,” “Made the decision to turn our will and life over to the care of God. as we understood Him”. “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”, “were fully prepared for God to remove all those character flaws” and “humbly asked Him to remove our flaws” .

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The United Airlines pilot at the center of the trial is a Buddhist. He opposed the religious content of AA. To accommodate his religious beliefs, he sought to replace regular attendance at a Buddhist-based peer support group. The lawsuit alleged that United Airlines refused to accommodate its religious objection to the AA program. As a result, the pilot was unable to obtain a new medical certificate from the FAA allowing him to fly again.

The EEOC alleged that United Airlines discriminated against the pilot on the basis of his religion when it refused to change its drug treatment program to change a requirement that conflicted with his beliefs. nuns.

According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of religion and must provide reasonable accommodations for an employee’s sincere religious beliefs, as long as it does not impose a undue hardship to the employer’s business.

Here, the pilot should have demonstrated that the alternative program is equally effective in combating his drug addiction, otherwise safety could be affected. In any analysis, employers can show undue hardship if the accommodation would impact safety.

As the EEOC stated when announcing the settlement, “employers have a positive obligation to modify their policies to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs.” The EEOC described United Airlines’ response to the employee as “inflexible” when it “refused to make a modest change to its program that would not have caused it any hardship.”

According to the EEOC’s announcement, the pilot will be compensated for his back pay and reinstated into his HIMS program while “allowing him to participate in a non-12-step peer recovery program. The company will also accept the religious accommodation requests through its HIMS program, institute a new religious accommodation policy and train its employees.

The EEOC has filed several lawsuits against employers for refusing to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs. Employers must not question the reasonableness of an employee’s belief, but may only engage in the interactive process and make a good faith effort to provide reasonable accommodation, unless it creates hardship. excessive.

Karen Michael is a lawyer and president of Richmond-based Karen Michael PLC and author of “Stay Hired”. She can be contacted at [email protected]


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