In 2017, David Disbrow, a pilot for United Airlines with more than 30 years of experience, was diagnosed with alcohol dependency and required to go through a treatment program. No problem there. Once he finished the program successfully, he’d be on track to getting his job back.
The problem was that United made him attend Alcoholics Anonymous, a religious program with “Twelve Steps” that include giving yourself to “God” or “a Power greater than ourselves.” His meetings were held in a Christian church.
Disbrow, however, is a Buddhist. The AA program was basically making him pledge allegiance to religious views he didn’t hold, in a place where he didn’t feel comfortable. But he was also participating in a similar Buddhist program called “Refuge Recovery,” so that should’ve been a sufficient alternative, right?
United wouldn’t let him do it. They said it was AA or nothing. That meant he couldn’t complete the treatment program, which meant he couldn’t get his job back.
Now, with the help of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), he’s suing United.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on religion, which includes the requirement to make a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, as long as doing so does not impose an undue hardship on the employer’s business. The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey… after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process…“Employers have the affirmative obligation to modify their policies to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs,” said EEOC New York Regional Attorney Jeffrey Burstein. “Despite this obligation, United was inflexible and refused to make a modest change its program that would have caused them no hardship.”
It’s that last bit that’s so puzzling. United didn’t say there was a substantive difference between the two recovery programs; they just forced Disbrow to go through the quasi-Christian one. It seems completely unnecessary.
Among other things, the lawsuit calls for a change in United’s policies and payment for lost compensation.
We’ve seen similar lawsuits in federal prisons from atheists. They’re not always successful, but this is a case where a simple accommodation is available and it’s just a matter of one religion instead of another. It shouldn’t be that complicated.