Legal battle over religious freedom a lesson for employers

Vail, USA - The operator of the Vail and Keystone ski resorts will pay $80,000 and furnish other relief to settle a religious and gender discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. We took a look at the case with Denver Labor Law Attorney Kim Ryan on 9NEWS 6 a.m.

Lawsuit Details

According to the EEOC's lawsuit, Lisa Marie Cornwell, an emergency services supervisor who worked for The Vail Corporation at the Keystone Resort, was subjected to harassment based on her Christian religion and her sex, denied religious accommodation and treated less favorably than her male colleagues.

The EEOC said that Cornwell's supervisor, Rick Garcia, forbade her and another Christian employee from even discussing their Christian beliefs with one another while at work, and would not allow them to listen to Christian music while on duty, because it might offend other employees, but had no similar restrictions on music with profanity or lyrics promoting violence against women, which were offensive to Cornwell.

Additionally, according to the EEOC, Garcia ridiculed Cornwell for asking for scheduling accommodation so that she could attend her preferred religious services, and denied her requests while scheduling lower ranking officers for the shifts she requested. Also, Garcia created and tolerated a sexually hostile work environment where he and other male employees made offensive sexual comments and jokes in the workplace, the EEOC alleged.

Her supervisor made sexually derogatory comments, such as women were for "things like staying home, cooking, and making babies, making graphic sexual comments about women's bodies, stating that "women are dumber than men," and talking about employees sexually at work, according to court papers filed by Cornwell's attorney, Laurie Scott Paddock.

The supervisor also said, "Which is more important, church or your job?," "I don't think God will hate you if you don't make it to church because of work," and "Christianity is a joke," according to court papers.

Cornwell complained to various Keystone managers and human resource staff about the harassment and being scheduled to miss her religious services on Sundays, but according to the EEOC no action was taken to resolve the problems. EEOC alleged that Cornwell was fired in retaliation for her last complaint, made less than ten days before her termination.

What was Vail's position?

Vail denied interfering with Cornwell's religion and claimed that it complied with all policies and procedures in all personnel actions and decisions and acted in a non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory manner, according to court papers filed in the case. Vail alleged that it terminated Cornwell for legitimate, nondiscriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons.

It claimed that her pain and suffering was the result of other personal experiences and said she could have prevented the conduct of which she complained.

Vail Resorts issued this statement:

"We're shocked that the EEOC would issue a news release that repeats only unproven allegations and fails to mention our adamant denials of any wrong- doing in this case. Their news release leaves the impression that we have either ignored or condoned these allegations and that the case was decided in the EEOC's favor. Nothing could be further from the truth," said Rob Katz, chief executive officer of Vail Resorts.

"We settled this case for various other reasons, not because we admitted any wrongdoing, and we absolutely do not tolerate or condone any form of discrimination or harassment of our employees or guests."

"Vail Resorts is committed to creating a quality work environment which makes full and effective use of the talents and contributions of all employees without regard to age, color, gender, pregnancy, national origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, status as a disabled veteran or veteran or any other status protected by federal, state or local law," said Rob Katz, chief executive officer for Vail Resorts.

"Vail Resorts already provides training to its employees and supervisors regarding discrimination and retaliation and, regardless of the settlement, will continue that training to promote a positive and respectful workplace environment," Katz added.

The EEOC's news release states as "fact" what are only unproven allegations, and does not refer to any evidence to support those allegations. The news release includes a quote from the EEOC regional attorney stating that Cornwell was "flatly denied accommodation" to pursue her religious activities.

In fact, even Cornwell admitted, during the course of the case, that she was allowed to trade shifts to attend her preferred religious activities, which is one of the EEOC's own recommendations to companies for providing an appropriate accommodation.

Furthermore, Cornwell's supervisor, not only hired Cornwell twice, but he also made the decision to promote her four separate times. Her final promotion was to be second in charge to his position. In fact, the supervisor has a solid history of promoting women, regardless of their faith or religious activities, both before and after Cornwell's employment. He terminated Cornwell's employment because he believed she had lied to the Company about her involvement in an internal security investigation, and asked a fellow employee to lie for her as well.

What does the law say?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that employers provide reasonable accommodation for the religious practices and beliefs of employees.

According to the EEOC, Cornwell could have been scheduled so that she could attend her religious services, without any cost or disruption to Vail's business operations, and the company was required by law to make some such accommodation. Also, Title VII prohibits workplace harassment based on religion or gender. The EEOC filed suit after first attempting to reach a voluntary settlement.

"Title VII imposes an affirmative obligation on employers to accommodate employees' religious practices and beliefs when possible. When Congress added this provision to the statute, they expected employers to cooperate with employees to work out some reasonable accommodation.

The environment in this case, where the employee was not only flatly denied accommodation, but also ridiculed for even asking, is unacceptable," emphasized Regional Attorney Mary Jo O'Neill of the EEOC's Phoenix District Office, whose jurisdiction includes Colorado.

Are these claims on the rise?

According to EEOC Denver Field Director Nancy Sienko, "Claims of religious discrimination have increased by more than 80 percent in the last ten years. We are seeing more and more of these cases, and have litigated several in the last few years. The EEOC will continue to vigorously enforce the statutes prohibiting this behavior."

What's next for this case? Under the settlement, Vail will pay Cornwell $80,000 and provide training for all of its Keystone employees on religious accommodation and prohibited harassment and retaliation. Ms. Cornwell said, "I am particularly pleased about Vail's agreement to conduct training on religious accommodation to help ensure that future employees will not be discriminated against in the same manner."

The EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its web site at