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Firm sued for religious discrimination in firing man over fingerprinting

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Firm sued for religious discrimination in firing man over fingerprinting
A lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stems from an AscensionPoint client’s requirement that employees be fingerprinted as part of a background check. File Photo by Roman Seliutin/Shutterstock

July 22 (UPI) -- The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing a Minnesota company, alleging discrimination by firing an employee who refused to be fingerprinted on the basis of his Christian faith.

AscensionPoint Recovery Services, which manages debt recovery for creditors, did not look for a way to accommodate Henry Harrington's religious beliefs before ending his employment, according to the EEOC lawsuit. The agency says alternatives to fingerprinting are available.

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Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on religion and requires employers to reasonably accommodate an applicant's or employee's religious practice unless it would pose an undue hardship.

"An employee should not have to choose between his faith and his livelihood," Gregory Gochanour, the EEOC's regional attorney in the Chicago District Office, said in a news release.

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AscensionPoint did not respond to requests for comment.

The suit, filed June 17 in U.S. District Court, asks for back pay for Harrington and an unspecified amount of money for non-financial losses, including emotional pain and inconvenience.

In addition, the EEOC seeks orders barring AscensionPoint from engaging in any employment practice that discriminates on the basis of religion and requiring the company to establish policies that provide equal employment opportunities "and which eradicate the effects of its past and present unlawful employment practices."

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The suit does not specify how fingerprinting would violate Harrington's faith, and he could not be reached for comment.

The case stems from an AscensionPoint client's requirement that employees be fingerprinted as part of a background check. The company made the request to Harrington in a July 2017 email.

"In response, Harrington informed APRS that the fingerprinting requirement conflicted with his religious beliefs and requested an exemption from the fingerprinting requirement as an accommodation," the suit says. "Harrington is Christian and has a sincere religious belief that he should refrain from having his fingerprints captured."

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Later that day, Harrington went to AscensionPoint's office in St. Louis Park, where he was told he must comply with the fingerprinting request. He declined again and AscensionPoint fired him without exploring any alternatives to fingerprinting, the suit alleges.

The EEOC tried to settle the case through its conciliation process and filed suit after the parties failed to reach an agreement, the suit says.

There have been previous similar cases.

'Mark of the devil'

In Pennsylvania, a Christian school bus driver was fired by Altoona Student Transportation in 2015 after refusing for religious reasons to be fingerprinted for a background check, which was required under a newly enacted state law.

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Bonnie Kaite said being fingerprinted would leave the "mark of the devil" on her, which she believes is prohibited by the Bible's Book of Revelation and would stop her from getting into Heaven. She asked to undergo a different kind of background check, but AST denied the request.

Kaite, who had worked for the company since 2001, filed suit seeking reinstatement and back wages. The suit alleged there was at least one AST employee with unreadable fingerprints who was allowed to continue working at the company after undergoing an alternate criminal background check that did not involve fingerprinting.

AST responded that the state's Child Protective Services Law requires all school employees who have direct contact with children to submit to a criminal background check, which includes mandatory fingerprinting.

"It is well-established that employers are not required to provide employees with accommodations that violate state or federal law," the company said in a court document.

The dispute was settled out of court in 2018. Terms of the settlement agreement were sealed.

In 2015, the EEOC won an award of nearly $600,000 on behalf of West Virginia coal miner Beverly Butcher Jr., a devout evangelical Christian who had retired under protest several years earlier rather than submit to biometric hand scanning. The newly implemented system required workers to scan their right hands when checking in or out of a shift as a way to track their hours.

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According to court documents, Butcher believes the "mark of the beast" brands followers of the Antichrist. Fearing the hand-scanning system would "mark" him if he used either hand, the miner offered to check in with his shift supervisor or to punch in on a time clock.

A Consol Energy human resources supervisor responded by giving Butcher a letter from the scanner's manufacturer that said the device cannot detect or place a mark on someone's body. The letter also said that because the mark of the beast is associated only with the right hand or the forehead, using the left hand would be sufficient to avoid any religious concerns.

At about the same time, unbeknownst to Butcher, the company was allowing two employees who could not scan either hand because of injuries to enter their personnel numbers on a keypad attached to the system, court documents say. A July 25, 2012, email authorized that accommodation for the two employees and denied it to Butcher, saying, "[L]et's make our religious objector use his left hand."

The EEOC sued and at the end of a trial, a federal jury awarded Butcher $150,000 in compensatory damages. During a later hearing, a judge ordered Consol Energy to also pay $436,860 in lost pay and benefits.

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Finding accommodation

Michael O'Brien, an employment attorney in Salt Lake City, said in an email to UPI that typical accommodation requests by employees involve time off or breaks for religious worship or observance and dress code issues such as wearing religious garb and having a beard or long hair.

Federal law and many state laws require employers to avoid discriminating based on religion and also to affirmatively accommodate religious beliefs and practices in the workplace if that can be reasonably done without undue hardship, or more than a minimal burden on operation of the business, O'Brien said.

The U.S. Department of Labor says an accommodation might cause undue hardship if it is costly, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work. Undue hardship also could be shown if the request for an accommodation violates the terms of a collective bargaining agreement or job rights established through a seniority system.

"When an employer receives a request for accommodation, the best practice is to have the company (usually a human resources person) discuss the need with the employee and try to figure out a way to help that works for both," O'Brien said.

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He added that in more complex situations, a company might also need to get legal advice.

"In my experience, most employers are quite willing to take reasonable steps to help their employees regarding religious beliefs and practices," O'Brien said.

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