(CN) – A former FedEx manager may have a religious discrimination case after he was allegedly fired for discussing his beliefs with staff, once comparing the employer-employee relationship with the biblical master-slave divide.
Eric Weathers, a self-described conservative evangelical Christian, began working for FedEx in 1988 and was promoted to direct sales manager in Chicago in 2007. The court notes that Weathers belonged to an internal FedEx organization of Christian employees and was occasionally invited to speak at FedEx sales conferences about his faith.
In August 2007, one of Weathers’ employees filed an internal complaint alleging that Weathers quoted scripture to her on multiple occasions and that he discussed his religion in an uncomfortable and offensive manner. “In particular, he quoted a portion of the Bible that says a slave should be obedient to his master,” according to the court.
The employee said Weathers had specifically told her that she was his slave. But Weathers claimed to have simply explained that the modern understanding of the master-slave passage by comparing it with the employer-employee relationship.
After this incident, FedEx told Weathers that his discussions of religion with other employees “must cease,” even if the other employee initiated the conversation.
In respond to this command, Weathers sent an email to human resources that quoted First Peter 3:15-17, which instructs Christians to “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.” The email specifically asked, “At what point and in what physical location does Title VII permit me to answer such genuinely posed questions?”
Weathers never received a response to this email, but was told in an informal conversation with an HR representative that he could not discuss religion because it was a “detrimental act.”
Nevertheless, in subsequent correspondence with his supervisor, Kym Kyker, she asked him to provide a definition for the term “atheist” and asked him, “Being from the South, you wouldn’t happen to be Baptist, would you?”
FedEx demoted Weathers for leadership failure in February 2008 after he received a poor performance evaluation that included employee feedback. He resigned a month later and filed suit for religious discrimination, failure to accommodate and a hostile work environment.
In deposition, Weathers testified that he believed Kyker “had it in” for him and that he felt forced out of FedEx.
U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang partly granted FedEx’s motion for summary judgment in part, but upheld Weathers’ claim for failure to accommodate.
Weathers did not show he was a member of a protected class or any evidence that, as he claimed, “other employees were not subject to the hostility visited upon the plaintiff,” according to the Nov. 1 decision. Additionally, “the level of hostility Weathers alleges he encountered is not sufficient to qualify as a hostile work environment,” Chang wrote.
But the court rejected FedEx’s assertion that Weathers did not have a “bona fide religious belief,” which is necessary to establish a claim of failure to accommodate.
On the contrary, Weathers’ email to HR represents an explicit offer of “evidence that he sincerely believes that his faith obligates him to answer questions directed toward him about his faith.”
When FedEx instructed him to not discuss religion in the workplace, “Weathers was effectively silenced, unable to exercise his religious belief and unable to discuss a subject of broad scope and of great importance to him,” Chang wrote.
Kyker also exacerbated the situation by asking Weathers religious questions. “This placed Weathers in the uncomfortable, and perhaps humiliating, position of being told he could not discuss his religion, despite his belief that he had to do so, while simultaneously being asked to join religious conversations,” according to the 25-page ruling.
“A reasonable jury could conclude that this treatment constituted an adverse employment action,” Chang wrote.