Belmont Law Review


Tennessee has a long history of strongly held and diverse religious beliefs and practices. Equally firmly established is its “at-will” employment rule that allows businesses to create and control their workforces to maximize operations and profits to the benefit of employers and employees. When an employee’s religious beliefs conflict with his obligations to his employer, state and federal laws resolve the tension. Employees who experience this tension and feel they have been discriminated against based on their religion generally have the choice to bring their claims of discrimination under federal law, state law, or both. Because claims under federal law may be removed to federal court, and because state courts are generally perceived to be more favorable to employees, some employees strategically elect to pursue only selected state law claims. An employee might also be forced to bring a claim only under state law if she works for a small employer, since the federal law’s reach is limited to employers with at least fifteen employees. This Article examines whether a Tennessee employee who brings claims only under Tennessee’s statutory protection against religious discrimination in employment has the same protections as he would if he proceeded under federal law. Part I discusses employers’ obligations under the Tennessee Human Rights Act (“THRA”), the primary Tennessee religious anti-discrimination statute, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), the primary federal religious anti-discrimination law. Part II discusses the background of both the THRA and Title VII and how it informs the analysis. Part III proposes that the THRA not be interpreted to import the reasonable accommodation requirement from Title VII. This interpretation is consistent with the textual language of the statute, courts’ interpretation of the Tennessee Disability Act, existing case law, and Tennessee’s history of limiting exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine. The Article proposes that this different interpretation is more consistent with the THRA as it is currently written and invites discussion of whether this interpretation is ultimately better for employees and employers.