An appeals court ruled Monday that a West Virginia coal mining company interfered with a worker’s religious beliefs after the evangelical Christian likened the company’s biometric hand scanners to clock in and out to the “Mark of the Beast,” as described in the Book of Revelation.
A panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found Pennsylvania-based Consol Energy Inc. erred in refusing to accommodate 37-year employee Beverly Butcher‘s religious beliefs. The appeals court denied the company a new trial and upheld the roughly $440,000 in lost wage and benefit damages.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Consol on behalf of the the coal miner, who retired under protest in 2012 when the company refused to accommodate his beliefs to not use the hand scanner. Consol installed the biometric scanner at a mine, in West Virginia, to monitor employee attendance and work hours. The company required each employee checking in and out of a shift to scan his or her right hand, connecting to a personnel number.
Butcher testified that his understanding of the Book of Revelation found that a mark brands followers of the Antichrist. He believed using the scanning system, which did not make a physical mark, could lead to identification by the Antichrist. In a separate and unrelated incident, he petitioned for his grandchildren to be exempted from using a finger scanning device at their school, citing the same beliefs, according to the Fourth Circuit. The appeals court said the sincerity of Butcher’s beliefs was not disputed.
In a letter to the company Butcher wrote, “As a Christian I believe it would not be in the best interest of a Christian believer to participate in the use of a hand scanner. Even though this hand scanner is not giving a number or mark, it is a device leading up to that time when it will come to fruition, and in good faith and a strong belief in my religion, I would not want to participate in this program.”
According to court documents, his supervisors had a different interpretation of scripture and said the use of the left hand would be sufficient. The company made accommodations for workers with physical injuries but not Butcher, arguing in a memo, “Let’s make our religious objector use his left hand.”
The appeals court upheld Butcher’s $436,860.74 award in front and back pay and lost benefits, and the permanent injunction against Consol, requiring the company—headquartered near Pittsburgh—to refrain from future violations of Title VII’s reasonable accommodation provision and to provide management training on religious accommodations.
The core of Consol’s defense was that it did not fail to reasonably accommodate Butcher’s religious beliefs because he essentially was misinterpreting the scripture passage about a mark showing allegiance with the Antichrist.
In its brief to the court, the company, represented by Wheeling, West Virginia’s Grove, Holmstrand & Delk, argued that the Book of Revelation specifically references the right hand and use of the left hand should not conflict.
“But all of this, of course, is beside the point,” the Fourth Circuit wrote in its ruling. “It is not Consol’s place as an employer, nor ours as a court, to question the correctness or even the plausibility of Butcher’s religious understandings. So long as there is sufficient evidence that Butcher’s beliefs are sincerely held—which the jury specifically found, and Consol does not dispute—and conflict with Consol’s employment requirement, that is the end of the matter.”
Punitive damages, requested by the EEOC, were not granted in either court ruling. Such damages would require that the company acted in reckless indifference to Butcher’s religious accommodation rights. The court found that the EEOC’s evidence was insufficient to show that kind of behavior.