The Buddhist, The Bible, And Morning Coffee

| William A. Schreiner, Jr.

Did you hear the one about the Buddhist marketing director who refused an order to add Bible verses to the daily morning e-mail he sent to all employees – and then got fired the next day, after an otherwise successful eight-year career?

This is, of course, not an opening line to a joke, but another installment in our occasional series about the intersection of religious beliefs (of all types) and employment – also of all types.  Religion and employment issues – whether it’s an employee in the C-suite or someone further along the hierarchy – almost never mix well.  Just this week, of course, nine of our fellow lawyers who happen to sit on the Supreme Court are hearing arguments in two cases about whether a company with a religious belief about contraception is exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s requirements for employer-provided health insurance. 

Far away from the hallowed marble home of the Supreme Court (which, by the way, we think is in a fine building -- unlike former Justice Harlan Fiske Stone) and down in the Eastern District of Texas, a new suit raises an interesting question of prohibited religious discrimination under Title VII: namely, can a fired Buddhist employee win damages from a company that, he says, fired him after eight years because he refused to put Bible quotations in the daily e-mail his employer had him write and send to all of the company’s 500 employees? 

Ultimately, the court will decide that question, one way or the other.  But here’s what we know about plaintiff Jef Mindrup’s suit against Goodman Networks, his former employer.  So far, all that has been filed is Mindrup’s complaint – so all we have in writing are his allegations – and not the company’s likely defenses. 

The story, as Mindrup tells it, is basically this.  Mindrup’s job as Director of Marketing Communications for Goodman Networks – which designs wireless networks – included writing and sending out “The Morning Coffee,” a daily e-mail update to all of the company’s employees.  He had done this, he alleges, for six years without incident.  Then one day, according to Mindrup, Jody Goodman – one of the company’s founders, a board member, and a vice-president – came to him and asked him to start putting Bible quotes into The Morning Coffee, “and to start doing so the next day,” Mindrup alleges.  The next day, Mindrup e-mailed Jody Goodman, saying he couldn’t do this – “I have always taken great care to avoid any quotes that would offend others as well as my own personal religious beliefs.” 

Regular readers can guess what happened then: the next day, the complaint alleges, Jody Goodman called Mindrup and in “an after-hours telephone call, [Mindrup] was fired by [Goodman Networks] for his refusal to include the Bible verses in The Morning Coffee.”  Mindrup sought relief from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – exhausting his administrative remedies, in other words – before the EEOC gave him a “right-to-sue letter,” which allowed him to file his case against Goodman Networks. 

So, what’s the path that will lead the parties to a decision in the Eastern District of Texas – or settlement, or some other outcome?  Let’s recall the allegation in Mindrup’s complaint is that his firing violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which prohibits firing “any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against” a person because of religion, which is defined to include “ all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief…”  Mindrup will need to show he was fired because of his religious belief, and not for some other reason.  After he makes out that prima facie, or initial, case, the burden will shift to Goodman Networks to show a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” for firing Mindrup.  Mindrup then has to essentially call this reason out: he’ll have to show it’s a pretext for discrimination.  Mindrup’s complaint anticipates this: he alleges that Goodman Networks told the EEOC that he was fired as part of a “pre-planned and well-though-out reduction in force,” but it characterizes this reason as a “pretext for discrimination.” 

Who will win?  We never predict winners and losers here at Suits-by-Suits.  We would say, however, that this complaint alone demonstrates a frequent caution that we dispense to executives and the employers who love them: if you’ve got to mix religion and the workplace, please remember to do so carefully.