Religious Discrimination

Court Finds No Title VII Violation Occurred When Employer Silenced Christian Broadcast

Free speech and religious discrimination claims brought by postal employees in Florida who sought to listen to Christian radio broadcasts over a public address loudspeaker at work have been dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

In response to employee complaints about the Christian station, the U.S. Postal Service discontinued the radio broadcasts and, as an alternative, permitted employees to listen to the radio over head sets or on individual radios while a work, according to the decision by Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks (Gunning v. Runyon, DC SFla, No. 69-0452, 4/17/98).

Postal service employee Paul Samuel Gunning responded by suing on behalf of himself and other employees who argued that the postal service's decision to turn off the workplace-wide radio broadcasts violated the prohibition against job discrimination based on religion in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The employees also argued that the postal service had breached their constitutional right to freedom of speech and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. To establish a claim under the RFRA, plaintiffs must show that they had a religious belief and that government action or regulation imposed a burden on the free exercise of their religion.

In September 1997, the court denied a motion to certify a class of 170 postal employees from Gunning's post office in the case. On April 17, the court granted a summary judgment motion to the postal service.

Title VII Claims Fail. The court said that the Title VII claim failed whether it was analyzed under a disparate treatment or a failure to accommodate theory.

On the disparate treatment claim, the court said it could find no evidence that Gunning was treated less favorably in the terms and conditions of his employment as a result of not being able to listen to the Christian station over the loudspeaker.

"We find no case law indicating that the right to listen to a certain kind of a privilege of employment such that denial of that right is properly cognizable under Title VII", Middlebrooks wrote.

Even if Gunning could show an adverse action, the court found the postal service presented a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for halting the radio broadcasts at work.

"Despite two elections, employees were unable to agree on an acceptable radio station; plaintiff's own testimony is that he had to tolerate music he found offensive. In order to avoid further conflict, the Post Office thus terminated all use of the public radio station," the court said, and that reason was legitimate and nondiscriminatory.

The court also rejected Gunning's claim that the postal service violated Title VII by failing to accommodate his bona fide religious beliefs. Listening to Christian music was not a bona fide requirement of Gunning's religion, the court concluded, and even if it was, the postal service permitted employees to listen to music on headsets or on individual radios at their work stations.

The court said Gunning's constitutional claim failed because, as a federal government employee, Title VII was his exclusive remedy for an alleged violation of his freedom of religion.

The court found that the purpose of the postal service is to provide for the national delivery of mail, and music that employees have objected to "interferes with an orderly and productive workplace environment."