U.S. court upholds Adventist's religious discrimination ruling

Silver Spring, USA - A United States federal appeals court yesterday upheld a ruling that a Seventh-day Adventist worker was discriminated against for not working on Sabbath.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a former driver for United Parcel Service (UPS), Todd Sturgill of Springdale, Arkansas, will keep his award of nearly US$104,000 in lost wages and court fees from an earlier district court ruling and will get his job back.

The 8th Circuit justices reversed the award of $207,000 in punitive damages, saying UPS did not act with malice or reckless indifference.

Sturgill was reportedly pleased with the outcome.

The case originated from a December 2004 incident in which Sturgill returned from his delivery route to the UPS center with 35 undelivered packages before going home on a Friday night, the beginning of the Biblical Sabbath. He was soon fired for what UPS called "job abandonment."

Though, as the court acknowledged, Sturgill had previously sought accommodation for his Sabbath-keeping beliefs, managers at the firm that day took no steps to enable him to complete his work before sundown.

Adventist Church leaders called the ruling a "mixed decision."

"The reason that the decision is mixed is that the court rejected both ours and UPS's standard of what constitutes 'reasonable accommodation' for religious beliefs in the workplace," said Todd R. McFarland, associate general counsel for the Seventh-day Adventist world church. "At trial and at the appellate court we argued that [law] requires that accommodation eliminate the conflict between the work rule and the religious belief. The employer offering something that only minimizes the conflict is not enough."

McFarland said it is rare for a religious discrimination case to receive punitive damages, an award to punish the offender and deter others.

The impact of the case is unknown, McFarland said. Future scenarios might leave Sabbath-keepers climbing two legal hurdles: "reasonable accommodation" for the employee without creating "undue hardship" for the employer.

"The 8th Circuit has taken the position that it is an individual decision for the jury to decide whether an employer has offered reasonable accommodation or not," McFarland said.