Press Release 07-20-2020

EEOC Sues United Airlines for Religious Discrimination

Airline Refused to Accommodate Buddhist Pilot’s Religious Beliefs, Federal Agency Charges

NEW YORK – United Airlines discriminated against a Buddhist pilot on the basis of his religion when it refused to modify its addiction treatment program to change a requirement that conflicted with his religious beliefs, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit it filed today.

According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, the pilot was diagnosed with alcohol dependency and lost the medical certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”). United operates a program for its pilots with substance abuse problems that provides them treatment and sponsors them to obtain new medical certificates from the FAA. One of the requirements of United’s program is that pilots regularly attend Alcoholics Anonymous (“AA”). The pilot, who is Buddhist, objected to the religious content of AA and sought to substitute regular attendance at a Buddhism-based peer support group. United refused to accommodate his religious objection and, as a result, the pilot was unable to obtain a new FAA medical certificate permitting him to fly again, the agency charged.

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 (EEOC v. United Airlines Inc., Civil Action No. 20-cv-9110) after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. The agency's litigation effort will be led by Senior Trial Attorney Sebastian Riccardi.

“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.”

EEOC New York District Director Judy Keenan added, “The EEOC stands ready to protect employees against discrimination on the basis of their religion.”

The EEOC’s New York District Office is responsible for processing discrimination charges, administrative enforcement and the conduct of agency litigation in New York, northern New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

The EEOC advances opportunity in the workplace by enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. More information is available at www.eeoc.gov. Stay connected with the latest EEOC news by subscribing to our email updates.