THE CROWN OF THORNS CASE
Some people put religious objects in their cubicle or office. Maybe it is a crucifix, mezuzah, kirpan, inverted pentacle, mandala, or rune. But we have to admit that we had never heard of someone putting an actual crown of thorns in her cubicle. When one employee did in the notoriously conservative Christian community of Colorado Springs it apparently freaked out some of her co-workers who kept religious objects of their own on the desk. They allegedly complained to the management that the crown said something about the woman’s mental stability and they were worried it could be used as a weapon. In any event her managers asked her to remove the crown and the employee filed an EEO charge alleging religious and disability discrimination.
We probably would have alleged the religious claim, but given that other employees kept Christian objects in their office that was not a surefire winner. The agency had a potential argument that it wanted the crown out because it was a potential weapon. IRS was able to bar kirpans in the office for that reason. Kawaljeet K. Tagore v. United States Department of Homeland Security; Federal Protective Service; United States Department of the Treasury; Internal Revenue Service, 735 F.3d 324 (5th Cir. 2013) However, we doubt we would have thought of the disability angle as this employee did. That is regrettable because that allegation turned into a winner. In that regard, the EEOC said it found that the supervisor had no more reason to believe that Complainant would become violent than any other employee would. Rather, his decision appeared grounded in stereotypes about people with mental illnesses. It noted that the Rehabilitation Act is designed to protect against unsupported myths, fears, stereotypes, and other attitudinal barriers about disability, which include, but are not limited to, concerns about productivity, safety, insurance, liability, attendance, cost of accommodation and accessibility, and acceptance by coworkers and customers.
So, the take-away here for employee representatives is that when helping an employee keep a religious object in the office do not overlook that management or co-worker resistance might flow from what the object says about the owner’s mental stability and the value of raising a disability discrimination claim along with an religion-based one. The lesson to be learned for managers is that if you are going to allege the object has to go because it can be used as a weapon and co-workers fear for their security, get them to put that in writing. An unsubstantiated manager’s claim does not work at EEOC.
This brand new case is titled, as Matilde M. v. Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Appeal No. 0120140147(2017)