Nursing Home Fired Sikh for Wearing Small Religious Sword, Federal Agency Charged
SACRAMENTO – Heartland Employment Services, which operates ManorCare Health Services - Citrus Heights, will pay $30,000 and provide training to all its employees to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency announced today.
The EEOC had charged that the nursing home violated federal law when it refused to allow a Sikh employee to wear a religious article while at work. Baljit Bhandal wears a small kirpan (ceremonial dagger or sword) as an article of her faith as a baptized Sikh. Even after receiving literature explaining that the kirpan is a religious article and not a weapon, ManorCare told Bhandal that wearing her kirpan at work violated the company policy against “weapons” in the workplace. She lost her job for not complying with their instruction to remove her kirpan.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits religious discrimination and requires employers to make reasonable accommodation to employees’ and applicants’ sincerely held religious beliefs as long as this does not pose an undue hardship. The EEOC filed suit (Case No. 2:08-CV-00460-FCD-DAD in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California) after an investigation by EEOC Investigator Martin Scheir and after first attempting to reach a voluntary settlement out of court.
In a consent decree filed this week, Heartland Employment Services agreed to pay Bhandal $30,000 and to train all employees, including managers in the region covering the Citrus Heights location, on recognizing and preventing religious discrimination. The training will expressly include information regarding the Sikh religion and its requirements. The company will also post a notice for its employees and regularly report to EEOC concerning any allegations of religious discrimination for the three-year duration of the decree.
“The kirpan is a very important part of Sikh beliefs,” said Bhandal, who was 41 at the time she was employed as a dietary aide at ManorCare’s Citrus Heights facility. “We wear the kirpan all the time, even while sleeping and bathing. I tried very hard to explain this to my employer. To remove it in order to keep my job was not something I could do. I hope that the result of my case will help more people understand Sikhism is a peaceful religion, and that the kirpan represents my commitment to be moral and upright.”
EEOC San Francisco Regional Attorney William R. Tamayo said, “Title VII protects employees of diverse religious backgrounds. While the tenets of one faith may not be as familiar to some people as others – whether it comes to wearing a cross, covering one’s head or praying – the law simply requires employers to respect their employees’ sincerely held beliefs and seek a reasonable accommodation to these practices. Keeping an open mind and looking at the individual circumstances will determine if a solution can be found and if the loss of a good employee can be avoided.”
EEOC San Francisco District Office Director Michael Baldonado added, “Our investigation found that Ms. Bhandal’s kirpan was six inches long and no sharper than the butter knives found in ManorCare’s cafeteria. She wore it clasped to a strap, sheathed, underneath her clothing and invisible to others. She should not have been forced to choose between keeping her job and honoring her faith. A best practice I would recommend to employers: Make an effort to communicate with your employees and members of the religious community to gain a complete understanding of a religion before you make employment decisions that needlessly pit an employer’s workplace rules against an employee’s ability to observe religious beliefs or practices.”
The skilled nursing facility is owned by Toledo, Ohio-based ManorCare, Inc. (NYSE: HCR), which, according to company information, operates 500 long-term care facilities in the United States and employs 61,000 people. This is the second lawsuit filed by the EEOC against ManorCare for failing to accommodate a Sikh employee’s religious need to wear a kirpan while at work. The EEOC’s Detroit Field Office filed the first suit against ManorCare (EEOC v. HCR ManorCare, Case No. 2:07cv1370) in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in August 2007. That case was also settled by consent decree.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.