(CN) – A property owner may have discriminated against two employees who were fired after they displayed prohibited religious artwork in their office, the 11th Circuit ruled.
Daniel and Mary Dixon, who are married, sued their former supervisors and employer, The Hallmark Cos. and Hallmark Management, for religious discrimination, retaliation, failure to accommodate religious beliefs and violations of the Fair Housing Act.
The couple worked as the on-site property manager and maintenance technician at a Hallmark rental complex, and they knew that Hallmark had a policy banning religious items in the management office.
Christina Saunders, a supervisor who visited the Dixons’ rental office, saw that the Dixons had posted a picture of a flower with the words “Remember the Lilies … Matthew 6:28.” Saunders confirmed that the picture was a Bible citation and directed the Dixons to remove it.
When the Dixons protested, Saunders fired them for insubordination.
“Hallmark maintains that the Dixons were fired for insubordination because they argued with Saunders and insisted on the re-hanging their artwork,” the ruling states. “The Dixons claim that although Mr. Dixon took no actions regarding the picture and said nothing at all, Saunders terminated him, stating, ‘You’re fired, too. You’re too religious.’ Saunders denies that she made this comment.”
The district court ruled for Hallmark, finding that Saunders’ comment did not constitute discrimination since the alleged comment was not “You’re fired, too because you’re too religious” (italics in original). But the appellate panel in Atlanta found that the alleged remark is discriminatory without any changes.
“The court’s analysis overlooks 11th Circuit precedent characterizing comparable remarks as direct evidence of discrimination,” U.S. District Judge David Coar wrote for the appeals court. “Most notably, we have held that a management memorandum saying, ‘Fire Early – he is too old’ constitutes direct evidence of discrimination.”
Coar affirmed part of the district court’s summary judgment award, finding that Hallmark did not violate the Fair Housing Act or retaliate against Dixons, but vacated and remanded the judgment on the Dixons’ failure-to-accommodate and discrimination claims.
“Hallmark knew that the Dixons were dedicated Christians who had previously opposed policies prohibiting the public display of religious items,” Coar wrote. “More importantly, if the jury believes that Saunders told Mr. Dixon he was ‘too religious’ when she fired him, it could reasonably infer that she connected the Dixons’ failure to remove the artwork with their religious beliefs.”