State employee fired for signing work emails with ‘In Christ’ takes bias claims to trial
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Monday, April 9, 2018

State employee fired for signing work emails with ‘In Christ’ takes bias claims to trial

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

A state human services department employee who was discharged for failing to comply with the agency’s email signature rule when he refused to stop signing all his emails with the valediction “In Christ” can proceed to trial with his Title VII and state-law religious discrimination claims. Denying the agency’s motion for summary judgment, a federal district court in Iowa found a triable issue of fact as to whether his use of the valediction was sincerely connected to religion. Nor did the agency show as a matter of law that the Establishment clause prevented it from offering an accommodation (Mial v. Foxhoven, April 4, 2018, Strand, L.).

Three months after he was awarded the position of Psychiatric Security Specialist with the Civil Commitment Unit for Sexual Offenders (CCUSO), the employee began signing the majority of his emails sent through his CCUSO email account with the “In Christ” valediction. While he never explained why he did not use that phrase before then or why he began doing so at that time, he stated that he used it to proclaim his faith in all he does. The pastor at the church he attended “probably half a dozen times total” testified that church members believe they are “to give out the gospel” and that the church “normally tries to train people to go out and knock on doors, give out gospel, give the gospel message.” However, when asked if it was necessary to use “In Christ” in a work email to proclaim one’s faith, the Pastor stated “It would be up to the boss.”

Business related information only. About a month after the employee began using the valediction, the CCUSO deputy superintendent sent an email informing staff that “Email signatures need to contain business related information only and employees shall not include any personal messages.” Nonetheless, the employee continued to use the valediction. In a subsequent meeting with his supervisor, he requested to keep his email without any changes. According to the supervisor, while the employee did not explain in great detail why he wished to keep using the valediction, he stated that “religion should be in every component of your life or something to that extent.” The supervisor’s meeting notes indicated that the employee “explain[ed] that his religious views were so important to him, that he cannot separate business from religious views,” and that he was willing to accept the consequences of his decision to continue using the valediction.

Terminated. The following day, the deputy superintendent sent a follow-up email to all staff repeating the directive to refrain from inserting personal messages in email signatures. One week later, in a meeting with the employee, the superintendent and deputy superintendent explained that the purpose of the email policy was to keep personal lives and business separate and discussed the importance of employees following supervisory directives. They also stated their belief that CCUSO email was potentially subject to a discovery or an open records request. In response, the employee stated that his use of the valediction was a result of his strong religious beliefs, he used it to proclaim his faith, and he understood this could cost him his job. He was fired that same day.

Personal preference or sincere belief? Moving for summary judgment on his religious discrimination claims, the agency first argued that his use of the email valediction was merely a personal preference that was not sincerely connected to religion. The undisputed facts established that the employee’s practice of signing his emails with the valediction “In Christ” was connected with his religious belief that he must proclaim his faith in everything he does but, said the court, the sincerity issue was “less clear.” There was evidence indicating that the practice was merely a personal preference: He began using the valediction during his third month of employment; he never explained why he did not use it before that point; he did not use it in instances in which he signed his name; and his pastor testified that the email valediction was not required.

Further, the court observed, there was some evidence that the employee began using the valediction with the expectation that it would lead to discharge and, potentially, a lawsuit. Nonetheless, his testimony concerning his faith and his commitment to proclaiming Christ in everything he did was sufficient to raise a jury question as to whether his use of the valediction was sincerely connected to religion, said the court, finding it could not resolve this issue as a matter of law.

Notice. And while the agency also argued that the employee did not provide sufficient notice to trigger its duty to accommodate, the undisputed evidence indicated that he informed CCUSO that his email valediction was connected to his religious beliefs. Thus, the court was also unable to conclude that he failed to provide sufficient notice as a matter of law.

Accommodation. Finally, the agency argued that it could not offer a reasonable accommodation without violating the Establishment Clause. While there was some evidence to suggest that at least some emails sent by CCUSO employees were subject to discovery and open records requests and that CCUSO maintained relevant policies about professionalism in the workplace and work emails, the court found scant evidence that the employee’s use of “In Christ” at the end of work-related email messages would lead the public to assume CCUSO was endorsing a religion. Thus, it failed to show as a matter of law that the Establishment clause prevented it from offering an accommodation or that the valediction caused any disruption in the workplace or violated any neutral, generally applicable rules or procedures.

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