Court will not dismiss case against employer for religious accommodations based on pronoun use

March 18, 2023

In February, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan refused to dismiss a federal lawsuit brought against an employer who allegedly declined to accommodate an employee who wouldn’t use a co-worker’s chosen pronouns due to a declared religious conflict.

The plaintiff, Denise Haskins, worked for Bio Blood Components until February 2021. Her job required her to “routinely interact” with another employee, referred to as “RS” in this case. Haskins and RS knew each other for several years. In February 2021, RS, who was born female, told co-workers that he identifies as a man and wanted to be referred to by his male pronouns.

Haskins is a “believing Christian” who “sincerely believes that she cannot live a lie and remain within the truth,” according to the case. The lawsuit further alleges that Haskins believes that “living a lie and being forced to repeat that lie out loud with her own lips is a significant violation of her right to practice her religion.” This religious belief resulted in Haskins refusing to use male pronouns when referring to RS.

Haskins was notified that RS, who felt bullied or harassed, filed a complaint against Haskins, although the specific conduct by Haskins supporting those allegations is unclear. Haskins responded to the complaint that she had a right to free speech and “could not have her speech compelled to tell a lie because she was a believing Christian who will not live a lie.” Haskins alleges she asked for a “religious accommodation,” but the employer denied that request “without any consideration” and asked Haskins to write a letter of resignation. After Haskins refused to resign, the employer terminated her employment.

Haskins alleged the employer refused to accommodate her religion under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The employer moved to dismiss the case as not stating a legal claim.

Haskins alleged she has a religious belief that conflicted with her employer’s requirement that she use her co-worker’s preferred gender pronouns. She also alleged that she informed her employer of this conflict and that her employer terminated her without offering any accommodation.

The employer responded that it could not reasonably accommodate Haskins’ beliefs without suffering undue hardship because allowing Haskins to continue working for the employer while refusing to refer to her co-workers by their preferred pronouns would expose it to liability under Title VII.

Specifically, the employer argued that using improper pronouns to refer to RS or other transgender employees would amount to unlawful harassment under Title VII, citing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has written that “intentionally and repeatedly using the wrong name and pronouns to refer to a transgender employee could contribute to an unlawful hostile work environment.”

In refusing to dismiss the case, the court held, “At this stage, however, it is not clear whether and to what extent [Haskins] used, or intended to use, any pronouns when referring to RS. [Haskins] does not describe the details of RS’s complaint about her. Moreover, individuals working directly with one another generally use names rather than pronouns. As such, the court cannot assess the nature of the hardship.”

In her complaint, Haskins alleged that her employer could have allowed her to “simply tell [RS] the truth . . . that she- he- cannot change the work of the Lord to suit a personal whim or accommodate a mental illness or belief system.” The court held that “telling RS that his gender identity is a personal whim or a mental illness might qualify as harassment under Title VII and allowing Plaintiff to do this likely would not be a reasonable accommodation even if it did not violate Title VII. However, Plaintiff alleges other possible accommodations in her complaint, including transfer to another work location.” While the employer claimed this accommodation was not reasonable, the court determined that a jury should make that determination.

The case will now proceed to trial to determine whether the employer could provide a reasonable accommodation without undue hardship.

This case is an important reminder to employers about their legal obligations and sometimes seemingly conflicting ones. Employers cannot simply ignore an employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation based on religion, even if the employer disagrees with the employee’s religious beliefs or if the accommodation might require some creativity to protect the interests of both employees.

The sincerity of the religious belief should not generally be questioned. Employers should focus on whether there is a reasonable accommodation by engaging in the interactive process and then determining an accommodation that will not cause an undue burden – currently defined as more than a “de minimis” cost.

The U.S. Supreme Court has recently agreed to hear a case regarding religious accommodations to determine whether the current undue hardship standard should be upheld, which is a lower standard than the burden applied under the Americans with Disabilities Act.