Religious freedom dispute resolved

Former school bus driver lost her job after refusing to be fingerprinted

The religious freedom case involving an Altoona woman who lost her job as a school bus driver because she would not submit to a background check that involved fingerprinting was resolved this week during a mediation session in Pittsburgh.

The case was officially “closed” Thursday by U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson in Johnstown.

Gibson ordered petitioner Bonnie F. Kaite, 55, and her former employer, Altoona Student Transportation Inc., the company that provides bus transportation to thousands of Altoona Area School District students, to participate in the federal court’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Program.

Although the parties agreed to mediation, the case was proceeding toward trial as well.

On Tuesday, attorneys for the two sides met with mediator, attorney Kenneth J. Benson, and after a session that lasted most the day, agreed to resolve the case.

Kaite’s Pittsburgh attorney, Samuel J. Cordes, said Friday that the terms of the settlement are sealed, but he said that both sides were satisfied with the resolution.

While he could not discuss terms of the settlement, Cordes said that Kaite will not compromise her religious objections to fingerprinting.

Contacted Friday, Kaite would not talk about the settlement but may have something to say next week.

Kaite lost her job with the Altoona Student Trans­portation on Dec. 31, 2015, after more than 14 years with the company, because she contended that a state-required background check utilizing fingerprints was against religious beliefs she learned as a child from her father.

Her lawsuit, filed in January 2017, charged that not only were her religious beliefs breached by the company, but that the company, in removing her from her job, retaliated against her because of those beliefs.

Kaite’s federal lawsuit pointed out that at least one other company employee was granted an alternative way to complete the state-required background check.

The company eventually fought Kaite’s lawsuit, filing preliminary objections asking Gibson to dismiss it for lack of cause.

After reviewing religious freedom cases, Gibson rejected the company’s request for dismissal.

Also, Commonwealth Court in an opinion written by Judge Joseph M. Cosgrove overturned a decision by the state unemployment compensation board denying Kaite benefits.

Cosgrove pointed to a 2017 federal appeals court decision in which an employee was dismissed for refusing to undergo a biometric hand scan because it represented “the mark of the beast,” a violation of his evangelical Christian religion.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision stated, “It is not (the employer’s) place as an employer, not ours as a court, to question the correctness or even the plausibility of (an employee’s) religious understandings.”

Cosgrove ruled that it was difficult to comprehend how the sate unemployment board determined that Kaite’s beliefs were somehow “personal” and not religious.

Her beliefs, he said, were biblically rooted and dwelt on concepts such as “heaven” and “the devil.”

In her federal lawsuit, Kaite asked the court to declare that a violation of Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act had occurred and that she be reinstated to her job.

She also requested punitive damages.

The Pittsburgh attorneys for the transportation company, Douglas J. Smith and Mariah H. McGrogan, were not available for comment Friday.

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