Race as Religion

A federal court decision that a racist supervisor cannot be demoted will not be the norm

In a decision that may be more significant for its bark than its bite, a district court in Wisconsin recently ruled that the racist creed of the World Church of the Creator (WCOTC) was a religion for purposes of the federal law prohibiting employment discrimination. See Peterson v. Wilmur Communications, Inc., No. 01-C-0162 (E.D.Wis. June 28, 2002).

Christopher Peterson worked as a manager for a telemarketing firm. Three of his subordinates were persons of color. When the president of the firm learned that Peterson was a "reverend" in the WCOTC — a white supremacist group that rejects all traditional notions of God and adheres to the view that loyalty to the white race is its religion — he suspended Peterson and then demoted him to a position without supervisory duties. Peterson sued, claiming discrimination on the basis of religion.

The Court ruled in Peterson's favor. To be a "religion" under federal law, a belief system need not include a concept of God, the court explained. Instead, it need only function as a religion in the life of the person who claims allegiance to it. As long as such beliefs are sincerely held, they may qualify as a religion even if they are not "acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others."

Under this test, the court ruled, the WCOTC creed was a religion for Peterson. Because there was no admissible evidence, in the court's view, that Peterson had treated any of his subordinates unfairly on the basis of their race, the court held that the firm had demoted him unfairly on the basis of his beliefs, rather than on the basis of his actions.

The result in the case is quite anomalous. The following hypothetical illustrates the point. Imagine an employer considering applicants for a job supervising a multiracial team of employees. If the employer asks the applicants if they harbor any racist attitudes — a legitimate question in light of the supervisory job for which the applicants are being considered — it would be perfectly reasonable for the employer to disqualify persons who admit that they are bigots. But the result in the Wisconsin case suggests that if the applicant's bigotry is so intense that it amounts to a religious belief, the employer would be prohibited from taking it into account.

The WCOTC has hailed the Wisconsin case as a "grand legal victory." But when the result in a case is as bizarre as it is in the Peterson lawsuit, other courts are unlikely to follow it. In future employment discrimination cases involving the WCOTC, employers will be much more careful than the telemarketing firm in the Peterson case to present admissible evidence that the racial attitudes of members have influenced their actions.

Such evidence was available in the Peterson case; the firm — perhaps because it did not take Peterson's claim seriously enough — simply failed to present it in a form that was acceptable to the court.

Even if there is no hard evidence that the racial attitudes of WTOTC members have affected their actions as supervisors of minority employees, employers should be able to muster effective arguments to demote them to non-supervisory positions. WCOTC Followers not only believe that the white race is superior; they also are directed by their faith to "show preferential treatment in business dealings to members of [their] own race."

Such a directive is not a mere abstract belief. Instead, it is a call to action that is more akin to a religious observance or practice. Although an employer generally may not discriminate on the basis of someone's beliefs, he may discriminate on the basis of someone's religious observances or practices if he "demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate" those observances or practices "without undue hardship." 42 U.S.C. 2000e(j). No employer could be faulted for refusing to accommodate a supervisor whose religious tenets included a directive to discriminate on the basis of race.

Even if courts are unwilling to classify religious directives as observances or practices, they may be willing to recognize a defense for certain types of employers.

Under federal law, the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of religious belief does not apply to religious organizations themselves in most instances. 42 U.S.C. 2000e-I(a). If the term "religion" can be read broadly enough to protect employees who subscribe to the white supremacist ideology of the WCOTC, it can be read broadly enough to protect employers whose commitment to non-discrimination goes to the essence of their mission.

Compare McMullen v. Carson, 754 F.2d 936 (11th Cir. 1985) (upholding discharge of Klansman from sheriff's office, despite the fact that he was "courteous, conscientious, and got along well with his fellow" employees, because his retention once his Klan membership was publicly known would have had "a deleterious effect on the Sheriff's ability to enforce the law," particularly in the black community).

In the end, the decision in the Peterson case will be remembered as an interesting piece of academic reasoning, not as an important legal milestone for the WCOTC.

Employers can reasonably expect their supervisory employees to be fair to their subordinates. When a supervisor pledges to "show preferential treatment to ... members of [his] own race" — the pledge that every WCOTC "reverend" makes — courts will not require employers to pretend that that person can be neutral in the workplace.