Bench Memos

Politics & Policy

A Little Case with Big Implications

A little-known case just concluded this week, but it has big implications for the important national dialogue taking place right now about how we, as a society, navigate conflicts related to faith and sexual identity. In Myrick v. Warren, a federal judge ruled that the State of North Carolina violated federal law when it forced one of its magistrates to resign because of her religious beliefs about marriage. The judge’s ruling comes ahead of the Supreme Court’s decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. CCRC, a case that also raises questions about conscience and LGBT rights.

First, the facts: When same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina, a state magistrate named Gayle Myrick didn’t want to stop anyone from getting married. She recognized that gay marriage was the law of the land. But her religious beliefs prevented her from personally performing same-sex wedding ceremonies. Since performing any wedding ceremonies was such a small portion of her regular work, she hoped there was a simple way that she’d be able to continue her job without having to perform that task.

Luckily, Gayle’s immediate supervisor proposed a solution — simply shift Gayle’s schedule by a couple hours so she wouldn’t even be working during the set times marriages were performed in her office. Gayle’s employer frequently accommodated magistrate’s schedules for a myriad of reasons, from something as simple as a soccer game, to other issues like attending drug rehab, night school, and religious holidays.

This minor scheduling adjustment was a reasonable solution. Every couple could get married without facing delay or rejection, and Gayle could keep doing the job she does best.

Unfortunately, the state government rejected this solution. Gayle would have easily been accommodated if she had requested to change her schedule for just about any other reason. But because her request was motivated by religious beliefs, she was targeted and forced to resign.

In a ruling that just became final, a federal judge ruled that Gayle shouldn’t have had to face this difficult choice. Under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, both public and private employers have a duty to exempt religious employees from generally applicable work rules, so long as this won’t create an “undue hardship.” If the employees can be accommodated in a way that would let the job still get done without much burden on the employer, then the employer must accommodate them. And at the very least, the employer must explore whether an accommodation would be possible. In Gayle’s case, the state wasn’t willing to even do that. That’s why the federal judge said that when the state government refused to even consider the many solutions available, solutions offered to other employees, it violated Title VII.

The government later admitted that it had treated Gayle unfairly, and it just recently finalized a substantial settlement to make Gayle whole and give back the pay and retirement benefits that were unjustly taken from her.

In one sense, Gayle’s case is just an ordinary application of Title VII protections. But in another sense, it is a landmark ruling. In the fraught context of gay rights and religious liberty, solutions like this have been in short supply. In this case, the judge found a way to protect the dignity of both sides.

At bottom, the time-honored requirement of the Civil Rights Act encourages employers to do lots of things in the workplace to ensure people of all backgrounds are valued, respected employees. This principle is a good thing for our country’s pluralistic workforce. It has allowed Muslim workers to take breaks for daily prayer, pacifist postal workers to avoid processing draft cards, and vegan government bus drivers to skip passing out coupons for meat products, to name just a few examples. Gayle’s court victory reinforces that this important principle is still alive and well, even in cases where emotions can run high. Regardless of whether we agree with Gayle’s beliefs, we should all be glad that the laws of our country require employers to create an accommodating workplace, and to do so in an evenhanded way that doesn’t allow targeting of some disfavored groups. Such laws protect the diversity and dignity of everyone.

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