An AT&T Broadband employee who was fired after refusing to abide by company rules that he said violated his religious beliefs about homosexuality has won a federal court case.
Judge Marcia S. Krieger of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado awarded Albert Buonanno of Denver $146,269 for lost salary, loss of 401(k) matching contributions and compensation for emotional distress in a Friday ruling released this week.
The judge found that although there was no direct religious discrimination against Mr. Buonanno, AT&T Broadband failed to show it could not have accommodated Mr. Buonanno’s beliefs “without undue hardship” to the company he had been with for nearly two years.
Mr. Buonanno objected to language in a new employee handbook issued in January 2001 that said “each person at AT&T Broadband is charged with the responsibility to fully recognize, respect and value the differences among all of us,” including sexual orientation. He was fired after refusing to sign a “certificate of understanding” acknowledging that he agreed to the policy.
The Civil Rights Act requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs of employees unless the employer can show it will create an undue hardship on the company to do so.
Mr. Buonanno felt his Christian beliefs prevented him from valuing or agreeing with homosexuality, which he views as a sin, but he pledged not to discriminate against or harass anyone, said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, the group that represented Mr. Buonanno.
“This issue is about more than an objection to homosexuality,” Mr. Whitehead said. “It concerns the freedom of conscience — the right of individuals to object to something they believe is wrong, especially when it contradicts their religious beliefs, whether it is war, abortion, homosexuality or a number of other issues.”
A spokesman for Comcast, which owns AT&T Broadband, said, the company “is disappointed in the court’s ruling,” which they said appears to ignore attempts by companies “to foster diversity and nondiscrimination in the workplace.”
The spokesman, who asked not to be named, said the company is reviewing the case and might appeal the ruling. Mr. Buonanno did not ask the court to reinstate him as a quota specialist, instead seeking monetary compensation. He now works for Mental Health Corporation of Denver as a counselor.
The ruling could embolden other Christians or religious people to challenge similar policies, said Mr. Whitehead, who expects court challenges to the “sensitivity training” companies sometimes require, which he said often aims at training workers to accept and value diversity, including homosexuality.
“I think Buonanno is just the tip of the iceberg,” Mr. Whitehead said.
Mr. Buonanno wasn’t asking anything that would unduly burden the company — such as granting him every Wednesday off for religious purposes, Mr. Whitehead said.
“All he was saying that he couldn’t agree that he would value the homosexual lifestyle … which as a fundamentalist Christian he sees as a sinful lifestyle,” said Mr. Whitehead.
But AT&T made “no attempt to even reasonably accommodate him,” and they couldn’t show undue hardship would occur if they did.
In the ruling, the judge listed several things the company could have done to avoid the situation, such as communicating better, getting more details about Mr. Buonanno’s concerns, clarifying what the company intended by the language in question, accepting his pledge not to discriminate, or even rewriting the language to make it less ambiguous.