SAVANNAH, Mo. – Three years after she was fired for refusing to work on Sundays, Connie Rehm has won back her job on the staff of this small town's public library, and her employers have received a costly education in employment rights law.
No less a legal team than the same Florida attorneys who represented the parents of Terri Schiavo — the brain-damaged woman at the center of last year's right-to-die case — took up Rehm's cause, suing Rolling Hills Consolidated Library on a claim of religious discrimination.
A federal jury found in her favor after a three-day trial in May, and last month she was reinstated on a judge's order to the staff assistant job she had held for 12 years before her religious practice and the library's adoption of Sunday hours collided in 2003.
To Rehm, a 54-year-old former junior high school math teacher who still attends the Lutheran church where she and her husband were married 34 years ago, the outcome of her case is a victory for any employee whose conviction against laboring on the Sabbath is tested by workplace demands.
"A middle American, mild-mannered, small-town library person — I attribute to the Lord a great sense of humor for having picked me for this test," Rehm mused in an interview at her home in rural Savannah, a northwest Missouri town of 4,900.
Though claims of religious discrimination are growing in number, they were only a tiny segment — just 3.1 percent — of the slightly more than 75,000 complaints filed last year with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The agency is a sort of legal gatekeeper, weeding out baseless claims and attempting to resolve those that seem to present genuine violations of the Civil Rights Act.
Rarer still are religious discrimination cases that wind up in a courtroom. When, as in Rehm's case, the EEOC determines that a violation did occur, both sides typically prefer settlement to arguing their positions before an unpredictable jury.
"As a plaintiff in a trial, you run the risk of no recovery. As a defendant, you run the risk of being found liable and having to pay damages," said Rehm's attorney, David C. Gibbs III of the Florida-based Gibbs Law Firm. The firm takes cases like Rehm's for the Christian Law Association.
Religious discrimination may be a specialized area only because such cases are uncommon, and not often won. And it's unlikely to remain a small area of the law much longer, said St. Louis attorney Jim Paul, chairman of The Missouri Bar's Labor and Employment Law Committee.
"Religious discrimination claims are definitely a new hot topic," Paul said. "A lot of companies and organizations are now operating longer hours and more days a week, so inevitably you're crossing paths with other parts of people's lives, including religious practices and observances."
The jury awarded Rehm $53,712 in damages, representing her lost library wages minus what she earned at other jobs after being fired. But the real prize was recovering the job she considers "a gift from God" because it allows her to serve her community.
"One of the unique elements of this case is that Connie wasn't interested in money, she wanted her job back. That's an uncommon situation," Gibbs said.
The library's position in settlement negotiations was "to deal with it as a financial matter," essentially paying to make Rehm and her claim go away, he said.
Rehm wasn't interested. She saw no reason for abandoning either her beloved second career or — as federal law phrases it — her "sincerely held religious belief" in abstaining from work on Sundays.
"What price is my religious freedom? What is it worth?" Rehm said. "It's not a matter of displaying the Ten Commandments. It's being able to live the Ten Commandments, and that's what my employer was asking me not to do."
Damages might be just part of the cost to the library district. The judge also could order it to pay Rehm's legal fees — and Gibbs' firm is seeking nearly $300,000 for their work.