A Nigerian Funeral, Five Goats, Pascal’s Wager, and the Seventh Circuit Court Gets Religion

The subject of this post is the recent religious discrimination in employment case Adeyeye v. Heartland Sweeteners (2013) in which the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit heard the case of an employee who had been denied a request of four weeks’ leave to attend his father’s funeral in Nigeria. The case is one of a number of recent ones involving accommodation requests by employees for time off to attend religious ceremonies and events lacking the regularity and formality of the Sabbatarian cases involving Friday, Saturday, and Sunday leave. It is one that received what is, in the view of this law-and-religion observer, an unusually sensitive and even anthropological treatment by Judge David Frank Hamilton, who wrote the decision on behalf of the three judges who heard the case.

Adeyeye argued that the burial rites were compulsory and that non-attendance would cause him and his family members to experience “spiritual death.” Adeyeye’s request was denied, he took time off to attend the funeral, and he was fired upon his return. In analyzing Adeyeye’s claim of religious discrimination the Seventh Circuit considered the definition of religion itself, finding that “a genuinely held belief that involves matters of the afterlife, spirituality, or the soul, among other possibilities, qualifies as religion.” Indeed, in assessing Adeyeye’s requests for time off, the court observed:

An employee may say in so many words, “I need to take unpaid leave to comply with a religious duty… A reasonable jury could certainly find that the letter’s multiple references to spiritual activities and the potential consequences in the afterlife provided sufficient notice to Heartland that Adeyeye was making a religious request.

Chastising the district court below for its unsympathetic ruling against Adeyeye, the Seventh Circuit maintained:

We recognize, of course, that the religious beliefs and practices Adeyeye referred to are not as familiar as beliefs and practices closer to the modern American mainstream. But the protections of Title VII are not limited to familiar religions.… If the managers who considered the request had questions about whether the request was religious, nothing would have prevented them from asking Adeyeye to explain a little more about the nature of his request.… The law leaves ample room for dialogue on these matters.

On the question of whether Adeyeye’s religious convictions about the necessity of attending his father’s funeral, the Seventh Circuit took up the issue of whether Adeyeye’s view reflected a sincerely held religious belief, particularly the employers argument that “did not participate in his father’s funeral rites based on a sincere religious belief of his own but acted instead based on his perceived duties as a son” –as if religious beliefs and filial duties are really that separate in most of the world’s religions.

At this point the Seventh Circuit waxed into a distinctly anthropological mode, arguing:

The evidence presented by Adeyeye and discussed below is sufficient to show that Adeyeye’s religious request to attend his father’s funeral in Nigeria so that he could perform specific rites, traditions, and customs was borne from his own personally and sincerely held religious beliefs. That is to say, a jury could find that for Adeyeye to observe his religion appropriately, it was necessary for him to participate in the burial ceremonies. Adeyeye has argued this from the beginning, so challenges to his evidence on this element focus on whether or not Adeyeye’’s claim that his religion compelled him to participate in the burial rites was in fact sincere.

In our view, the issue is Adeyeye’s sincerity, but that does not require a deep analysis of his conscious and/or subconscious reasons or motives for holding his beliefs. As Adeyeye’s counsel aptly noted in oral argument, the prospect that courts would begin to inquire into the personal reasons an individual has for holding a religious belief would create a slippery slope we have no desire to descend. Has the plaintiff had a true conversion experience? Is he following religious practices that are embedded in his culture and family upbringing? Is he making Pascal‘s coldly rational wager to believe in God based on his self-interest? These questions are simply not an appropriate or necessary line of inquiry for courts. We are not and should not be in the business of deciding whether a person holds religious beliefs for the “proper” reasons. We thus restrict our inquiry to whether or not the religious belief system is sincerely held; we do not review the motives or reasons for holding the belief in the first place.

Adeyeye was born in Nigeria and lived there until he moved to the United States as a legal permanent resident in 2008. In his deposition testimony and declaration, Adeyeye explained that his family’s religion is a blend of Christianity and customs, traditions, and ceremonial rites developed in his Nigerian village. As a part of this religion, the specific dictates of each family’s religious practice are identified, determined, and required by the father or male head of the household. Thus, participating in the rites and traditions identified by his father is a necessary part of Adeyeye’s religious observance. Adeyeye explained this in his deposition: “I have to go to Nigeria to go to perform my rites. Being — my rites — what I mean by rite, we have a customary rite, our whole culture. So being the main child of the family, so I have to go there and perform a rite.”

Adeyeye identified these religious rites in his letters requesting unpaid leave, quoted above, as well as in his deposition and declaration. They included leading an extended procession through the village, animal sacrifice in the form of killing five goats, and cutting off his mother’s hair and anointing her head twice with snail oil while she remained secluded in her home for one month of mourning until Adeyeye coaxed her to exit her home and to reenter society.

As for the law on this point, namely Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, governing employment relations, the Seventh Circuit found that:

Under Title VII’s broad and intentionally hands-off definition of religion, such beliefs and practices are protected from discrimination. . . . It is not within our province to evaluate whether particular religious practices or observances are necessarily orthodox or even mandated by an organized religious hierarchy. . . . Title VII and courts also do not require perfect consistency in observance, practice, and interpretation when determining if a belief system qualifies as a religion or whether a person’s belief is sincere. These are matters of interpretation where the law must tread lightly.

Later on in the opinion, the Seventh Circuit found space to further elaborate the nature of Adeyeye’s belief in his own words:

The Christian religion in which I was raised incorporates the traditional rites and customs of my village and family. Under these traditions, my father, as the head of the family, determined the religious practices, beliefs and customs for his household. I believe that I was spiritually compelled to follow these practices, beliefs, and customs in connection with the death and burial of my father. . . . I believe I was compelled by my religious beliefs to follow the traditional rites and customs established by my father as head of the household in connection with my father’s death and funeral. I believe that if I failed to follow these rites, my father’s death would have brought spiritual death upon both my mother and myself and would have prevented my mother and me from finding spiritual peace.

The Seventh Circuit followed Adeyeye’s declaration of his beliefs with its own statement of the need for law to defer to religion in this matter, stating:

As explained above, that is not a task appropriate for courts. Moreover, we cannot help but note that Adeyeye’s professed belief that his faith required him to follow his father’s directions about matters of faith and ritual seems to fit very comfortably with the Judeo-Christian divine commandment to honor thy father and thy mother. See Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16. Thus, we do not see the bright line between the father’s faith and the son’s faith that Heartland sees. Lastly, while not necessary given the other evidence, a jury may very well find it relevant evidence of sincerity that Adeyeye was willing to risk his job and put up his car as collateral for a loan to fund his trip to Nigeria to participate in these burial rites. The record provides sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that Adeyeye was acting on the basis of his own sincere religious beliefs.

The analogy to the Judeo-Christian Honor Commandment might not be wholly satisfactory to those concerned about “Christian hegemony” or the correctness of the “Judeo-Christian” reference, but it allowed the court to link Adeyeye’s beliefs with concerns for filial duty that are more or less universal across the world’s religions and cultures–and it did get him a favorable verdict in the end.

The Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment for the employer and remanded the case back to the district court for further consideration in line with its understanding of Adeyeye’s religous beliefs about his filial duties in connection with his father’s funeral. It resisted Pascal’s wager, took Adeyeye’s religious beliefs seriously (five goats and all) and through an analogy to commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother” found in his favor. It’s a nice case of the law “getting” religion.