The Last Straw Better Not Be Religious

Nyaboga v. Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, a recent unpublished cased from the Minnesota Court of Appeals, discusses whether an employee was fired for legitimate reasons or for religious reasons. Nyaboga was fired, then she sued over whether she was entitled to unemployment benefits. She had worked as a nurse, and asked not to be scheduled for Saturday shifts when she got more serious about her religious beliefs as a Seventh-Day Adventist. Her employer required her to find people to replace her on that shift (which the Court hinted might have been a separate problem, but was not discussed in the opinion). By the time Nyaboga lost her job, she had been tardy 58 times and warned repeatedly. She was warned that she would lose her job if she were absent one more time or tardy two more times.

Nyaboga could not find anyone to work an upcoming Saturday shift, and told her supervisor she would not work for religious reasons. Her supervisor said she would be terminated if she didn't show up. She failed to report, and was fired. She asked for unemployment beliefs on the basis that her religious beliefs were a good reason to fail to follow the attendance policy. Her employer challenged her request for benefits, and the administrative agency decided she was not entitled to unemployment benefits. Nyaboga appealed the decision. The Court concluded that the actual conduct that triggered the discharge was an absence for religious reasons. Nyaboga was forced to choose between her religion and her employment, which is prohibited by the Free Exercise Clause. The Court decided that Nyaboga was entitled to her unemployment benefits.

The takeaway here for employers is that they must reasonably accommodate religious beliefs. If an employee needs to be discharged, employers should be careful to do it on grounds other than religious grounds. For instance, if Nyaboga had been tardy twice more, which was likely after being tardy 58 times before, the employer could have fired her with impunity.

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