United settles lawsuit involving Buddhist pilot who sought alternative to AA meetings

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United Airlines has agreed to pay a Buddhist pilot $305,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging the employer engaged in religious discrimination, in violation of Title VII of the Human Rights Act Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the agency said Tuesday.

The airline reportedly refused to make religious accommodations as part of its Human Intervention Motivational Study (HIMS) program for a pilot who was diagnosed with alcohol dependence and enrolled in the program to obtain a medical certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration needed to fly again, according to the complaint.

The program required participation in Alcoholics Anonymous and plaintiff-accessible A.A. meetings began with prayer, were held in churches, and demanded recognition of a “power greater than ourselves” and “God,” the complaint said. .

As a reasonable accommodation, the pilot requested instead to attend Refuge Recovery’s alcohol and drug addiction support group meetings, which are based on Buddhist principles. United refused to allow accommodations, according to the complaint, and as a result the pilot was unable to participate in the HIMS program and therefore unable to return to work.

Under the settlement agreement, United Airlines will reimburse salary and damages, reinstate him into the HIMS program and implement a new policy on religious accommodations.

“Employers have a positive obligation to modify their policies to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs,” EEOC New York Regional Attorney Jeffrey Burstein said in a press release. “If they require their employees to attend AA as part of a rehabilitation program, they must ensure that they allow alternatives for their employees who have religious objections to AA.”

In an emailed statement, United said: “When it comes to the EEOC, safety is our top priority, and we have the utmost confidence in the HIMS program, considered the gold standard of our industry for drug abuse monitoring.”

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, employees may not be discriminated against on the basis of race, color, religion, gender or national origin and may be entitled to damages for violations.

This protection extends to “admission to or employment in” training or retraining programs, according to the law. Additionally, in its religious discrimination guidelines, the EEOC noted that employees should not be required to participate (or refrain from participating) in religious activity as a condition of employment.

As a guideline, the EEOC recommended that companies develop internal procedures for handling religious accommodation requests and train managers and supervisors on how to identify employee religious accommodation requests. Employers should also review each accommodation request individually, the EEOC said.

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