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BOSTON — The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state’s public transportation agency discriminated against a prospective employee by refusing to accommodate his religious beliefs. In a Jan. 4 ruling, the state’s high court said the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority did not prove that hiring the applicant as a part-time bus driver and allowing him time off during his Sabbath (from Friday sundown to Saturday’s sundown) would have caused an “undue hardship” to its operations. The court also said the transit authority “erred” by not engaging in an “interactive process” to evaluate the employee’s request, but stopped short of ruling that it violated state employment discrimination laws. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority v. Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, SJC-09893 (Mass.) “We therefore do not require an interactive process without exception,” wrote Associate Justice Robert Cordy. “There is no obligation to undertake an interactive process if an employer can conclusively demonstrate that all conceivable accommodations would impose an undue hardship on the course of its business�.Such a demonstration, however, will often be difficult to make without the employer’s having engaged in an interactive process with the employee.” The transit authority lost the battle but won the war, said the agency’s lawyer, Mark Batten a Boston labor and employment partner at New York’s Proskauer Rose. Batten said the court “came pretty close” to saying that the state’s statue should be interpreted the same way as the federal Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which only requires employers to show a minimal burden to prove an undue hardship in accommodating religious beliefs. The decision also cleared up a couple of other key points about state law Batten said: a union employer in Massachusetts isn’t required to circumvent the seniority system outlined in a collective bargaining agreement to accommodate a religions preference, nor pay overtime to other employees covering the worker out for religious reasons. “In the long run that’s what the case is going to be cited for,” Batten said. “The court has brought more clarity to a statute that had never been interpreted before as to what burden employers have to accommodate religious differences,” Batten said. Beverly I. Ward, commission counsel at the discrimination agency, said the commission’s practice of analyzing an employer’s showing of undue hardship when denying a reasonable accommodation won’t change. “The court essentially said that in this type of case there’s not an express obligation or separate violation if you fail to engage in an interactive process, but if you fail to engage in an interactive process you had best prove undue hardship,” Ward said.

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