Contributor, The Volokh Conspiracy

One more data point on the “When does your religion legally excuse you from doing part of your job?” question — like it or not, under American law, employers sometimes do have to excuse employees from tasks that the employees find religiously objectionable. Tuesday, two Muslim truck drivers who were fired for refusing to deliver shipments containing alcohol were awarded $40,000 in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitive damages by the jury in their discrimination claim.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought suit on their behalf (EEOC v. Star Transport Co., Inc. (N.D. Ill.)), arguing that the employer had failed to provide “reasonable accommodations” to the employees — i.e., accommodations (including an exemption from job duties) that could be provided without “undue hardship” to the employer or others. The court noted that Star Transport had indeed often “swap[ped]’ loads between drivers,” and Star Transport conceded that it could have easily accommodated this request, too, but argued (unsuccessfully) that it shouldn’t be liable for punitive damages.

This concession was important, and if Star Transport had fought the case, and shown that such a swap would indeed be difficult (and that its “forced dispatch” policy, which on its face generally required drivers to deliver what they were told, was consistently enforced), it should have won. But when accommodating an employee just requires a bit of extra administrative hassle, in the form of arranging a swap (given that most other drivers presumably wouldn’t care about whether they are delivering alcohol), the federal Civil Rights Act requires the employer to do this.

But as the Peoria Journal Star (Andy Kravetz) notes, “Whether the men collect their money is another story. Star Transport went out of business earlier this year and it’s unknown who is now responsible for the judgment.” Thanks to Professor Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.