A Muslim flight attendant has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to allow her to sue her former airline employer for forcing her to serve alcohol against her religious convictions. Is her pursuit of accommodation reasonable or justified?
Muslim Flight Attendant Asks U.S. Supreme Court For Help
- Does the Railway Labor Act, which governs airline-union relations and requires that disputes go to arbitration, trump the right to sue in the 1964 Civil Rights Act?
- Does requiring an airline to re-open a union contract constitute an undue hardship that would exempt them from making a religious accommodation for a flight attendant over serving alcohol?
Allow me to translate that for you: should she be allowed to sue or does the law forbid it? Furthermore, can an airline argue that it should be spared from laws mandating religious accommodation if it requires renegotiating a signed union contract?
The flight attendant explains that her former airline, ExpressJet, did initially provide accommodation. But after a flight attendant complained that this arrangement constituted an unreasonable additional work burden on her, ExpressJet yanked the accommodation. It told the flight attendant that the collective bargaining agreement ratified by its flight attendants prohibited this. After the flight attendant continued to demand religious accommodation, she was placed on unpaid leave.
ExpressJet prevailed in the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, prompting the request for the Supreme Court to examine the issue. The Supreme Court may choose to accept the case or decline, which would effectively leave in place the decision of the Sixth Circuit.
Again, the Supreme Court would not answer the question I posed in the title. Instead, it would balance the tension between federal discrimination law and federal labor law, ultimately ruling if the flight attendant could litigate her case in a federal district court.
But let’s get to the issue itself.
Is Such Flight Attendant Religious Accommodation Justified?
On the surface, her claim seems absurd, doesn’t it? She presumably knew what she was signing up for in being a flight attendant and if she didn’t, that’s her problem. A flight attendant not serving alcohol is like a barber refusing to cut hair on religious grounds, right?
Not so fast.
I think the answer to my title question is ultimately no. In the same vein, a county clerk cannot simply refuse to issue marriage licenses for couples that violate her religious convictions by entering into civil marriage.
However, I see religious accommodation as a great positive in the United States, not negative. Let’s look at this way: is there a way that a flight attendant can avoid serving alcohol and still pull her weight?
If two flight attendants work their way down an aisle serving drinks, is it too much work for the other flight attendant to pour and serve all requests for alcohol? The Muslim flight attendant could collect all the trash, resulting in a net neutral distribution of labor (or perhaps even more work for the Muslim if no one ordered alcohol).
The issue is not so much reasonable expectations as much as the nexus between a sincerely-held religious belief and its impact upon the operation of the business. Should a pharmacist be forced to dispense abortifacients or a hospital nurse be forced to assist in IVF treatment if it violates their religious beliefs? U.S. courts have held no, especially if others are available to perform that role.
Just like a pharmacist’s primary job is not to dispense the “morning after” pill, but to dispense and advise on a wide range of drugs, so too a flight attendant’s job is not simply to serve drinks, but to provide safety and stability in case of an emergency as well as comfort onboard.
I realize that accommodation would not work in all cases (and that every analogy breaks down at some point). If a flight attendant is working on a smaller regional jet that staffs only one flight attendant, there is no way to avoid serving alcohol. In that case, reasonable accommodation becomes impossible.
But as a person of faith, I do think reasonable accommodation is often possible without subjecting co-workers or the public to an unfair burden or the imposition of morality.
I strongly doubt the flight attendant will be granted writ from the Supreme Court. I also understand I am likely in the slim minority camp when it comes to this issue. I do think certain religious accommodation requests are simply absurd. But I’m not sure this is one of them…
What are your thoughts on this issue? Should a Muslim flight attendant be forced to serve alcohol (or pork)? I consulted with a pair of devout Muslim friends. Both told me that Islam forbids not only drinking alcohol, but serving it, hence the issue.