No Unemployment Benefits After Religious Dispute

No Unemployment Benefits After Religious Dispute

A worker who refused to wear a name tag bearing a religious “mission statement,” lost the right to collect unemployment benefits after the court found that he quit his job and had no clear religious beliefs that were violated in the workplace. Mathis v. UCBR, 64 A.3d 293 (Pa. Cmmwlth. 2103).

The worker was employed for almost two years at a small heating and air conditioning company. The company’s owner included a spiritual mission statement in the employee handbook and on a name tag which all employees were required to wear. The name tag displayed the employee’s name, photo and company logo on the front; on the back, the name tag included a mission statement that stated that the company was not just a business, but was a ministry, and that the company was run in a way “most pleasing to the Lord.”

After working for the company for almost two years, the employee decided to cover the back of his name tag with duct tape, later explaining that he felt the company owner was ‘always pushing his religion.” When the owner noticed the duct tape, he told the employee to remove it or he would lose his job. The employee left the workplace and filed for unemployment.

In the subsequent litigation, the court focused on two issues. First, the court analyzed whether the employee was fired or quit. Because the employer created an option, conditioning the loss of the job on the employee’s removing the duct tape, the court found that the owner had not fired the employee. Instead, the court noted, the employer had given the employee a choice to keep his job by removing the duct tape. But because the employee then simply chose to leave the workplace, he was determined to have quit his job.

When work place disputes arise, an employee is not considered to have been fired if the employer has given the employee a choice. Statements from employers like “there is the door,” or “shape up or ship out,” are not considered firings. When employees are given an alternative to follow workplace rules or be fired, the courts focus closely on the employees’ response. Generally, an employer must clearly and unequivocally fire an employee for the termination to be considered a firing.

Next, the court focused on the religious issues. The court noted that while the employee claimed that his religious freedom and religious beliefs had been violated at work, the employee never identified his own religious beliefs and never explained just what he found offensive or burdensome in the name tag mission statement or in the workplace environment.

In defending his name tag mission statement, the business owner pointed out that the company employed workers of many faiths, and that while he advanced Christian beliefs, his Jewish employees and non-religious employees had no objections to the atmosphere at the workplace or to the content of the name tag statement.

Small businesses have broad leeway in introducing religious values in the workplace. While government agencies must respect constitutional principles of the separation of church and state, private employers may advance religious goals, provided they do so openly, without coercion and without discriminating against employees of different faiths.