Peterson v. Wilmur Communications, Inc.

Decision Date03 June 2002
Docket NumberNo. 01-C-0162.,01-C-0162.
Citation205 F.Supp.2d 1014
PartiesChristopher Lee PETERSON, Plaintiff, v. WILMUR COMMUNICATIONS, INC., Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Wisconsin

Janet L. Heins, Milwaukee, WI, for Plaintiff.

Robert N. Meyeroff, Milwaukee, Wi, for Defendant.

DECISION AND ORDER

ADELMAN, District Judge.

I. FACTS AND BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Christopher Lee Peterson, is a follower of the World Church of the Creator, an organization that preaches a system of beliefs called Creativity, the central tenet of which is white supremacy. Creativity teaches that all people of color are "savage" and intent on "mongreliz[ing] the White Race," that African-Americans are subhuman and should be "ship[ped] back to Africa"; that Jews control the nation and have instigated all wars in this century and should be driven from power, and that the Holocaust never occurred, but if it had occurred, Nazi Germany "would have done the world a tremendous favor." (R. 26 ¶ 2.) An introductory pamphlet about Creativity states:

After six thousand years of recorded history, our people finally have a religion of, for, and by them. CREATIVITY is that religion. It is established for the Survival, Expansion, and Advancement of [the] White Race exclusively. Indeed, we believe that what is good for the White Race is the highest virtue, and what is bad for the White Race is the ultimate sin.

We have come to hold these views by observing the Eternal Laws of Nature, by studying History, and by using the Logic and Common Sense everyone is born with: the highest Law of Nature is the survival of one's own kind; history has shown the United States that the White Race is responsible for all that which we call progress on this earth; and that it is therefore logical and sensible to place supreme importance upon Race and to reject all ideas which fail to do so.

(R. 20 Ex. 3.)

Creativity considers itself to be a religion, but it does not espouse a belief in a God, afterlife or any sort of supreme being. "Frequently Asked Questions about CREATIVITY," a publication available on the World Church of the Creator's website, characterizes such beliefs as unsubstantiated "nonsense about angels and devils and gods and ... silly spook craft" and rejects them in favor of "the Eternal Laws of Nature, about which [Creators say] the White Man does have an impressive fund of knowledge." (R. 25 Ex. C at 8.) The White Man's Bible, one of Creativity's two central texts, offers a vision of a white supremacist utopian world of "[b]eautiful, [h]ealthy [white] people," free of disease, pollution, fear and hunger. (R. 29 Ex. 1 at 5-7.) This world can only be established through the degradation of all non-whites. Id. Thus, Creativity teaches that Creators should live their lives according to the principle that what is good for white people is the ultimate good and what is bad for white people is the ultimate sin. Id. at 3. According to The White Man's Bible, the "survival" of white people must be ensured "at all costs." (R. 26 ¶ 2.) Plaintiff holds these beliefs and, in June 1998, became a "reverend" in the World Church of the Creator.

In 2000, plaintiff was employed by defendant Wilmur Communications, Inc. as a Day Room Manager, a position which entailed supervising eight other employees, three of whom were not white. On Sunday, March 19, 2000, an article appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel discussing the World Church of the Creator, interviewing plaintiff, and describing his involvement in the church and beliefs. The article included a photograph of plaintiff holding a tee-shirt bearing a picture of Benjamin Smith, who, carrying a copy of The White Man's Bible, had targeted African-American, Jewish and Asian people in a two-day shooting spree in Indiana and Illinois before shooting himself in the summer of 1999. The caption under the photograph read "Rev. C. Lee Peterson of Milwaukee holds a T-shirt commemorating Benjamin Smith, who killed two people and wounded nine others before shooting himself in a two-day spree last summer." (R. 25 Ex. D at 3.)

When plaintiff arrived at work the next day, his supervisor and the president of the company, Dan Murphy, suspended him without pay. Two days later, plaintiff received a letter from Murphy demoting him to the position of "telephone solicitor," a position with lower pay and no supervisory duties. I restate the text of the letter in full:

On Sunday, March 19, 2000, an article appeared in the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel stating that you were a member of the World Church of the Creator, a White supremacist political organization. On Monday, March 20, 2000, the information in the newspaper article was known by everyone in our office.

Our office has three out of eight employees who are not White. As of March 20, 2000, you were their supervisor. As a supervisor, it is your responsibility to train, evaluate, and supervise telephone solicitors. Our employees cannot have confidence in the objectivity of your training, evaluation, or supervision when you must compare Whites to non-Whites.

Because the company, present employees, or future job applicants cannot be sure of your objectivity, you can no longer be a supervisor and you are hereby notified of your demotion to a telephone solicitor effective March 22, 2000.

(R. 20 Ex. C.) During his six years of employment at Wilmur Communications, plaintiff had been disciplined once for a data entry error but had never been disciplined for anything else.

Plaintiff has moved for summary judgment arguing that defendant demoted him because of his religion in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Defendant has filed a cross motion for summary judgment. These motions are before me now.

II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

Summary judgment is required "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R.Civ.P. 56(c). The mere existence of some factual dispute does not defeat a summary judgment motion; "the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986) (emphasis deleted). For a dispute to be genuine, the evidence must be such that a "reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. For the fact to be material, it must relate to a disputed matter that "might affect the outcome of the suit." Id.

The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Where the moving party seeks summary judgment on the ground that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case, the moving party may satisfy its initial burden simply by pointing out the absence of evidence. Id. at 325, 106 S.Ct. 2548. Once the moving party's initial burden is met, the nonmoving party must "go beyond the pleadings" and designate specific facts to support each element of the cause of action, showing a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 322-23, 106 S.Ct. 2548. Neither party may rest on mere allegations or denials in the pleadings, Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, or upon conclusory statements in affidavits, Palucki v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 879 F.2d 1568, 1572 (7th Cir.1989).

In evaluating a motion for summary judgment, the court must draw all inferences in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). However, it is "not required to draw every conceivable inference from the record—only those inferences that are reasonable." Bank Leumi Le-Israel, B.M. v. Lee, 928 F.2d 232, 236 (7th Cir.1991).

When reviewing cross motions for summary judgment, I assess the merits of each summary judgment motion independently. See 10A Charles Alan Wright, et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 2720 at 335 (3d ed.1998). Each party, as a movant for summary judgment, bears the burden of establishing that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that it is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Id. The fact that one party fails to satisfy that burden on its own motion does not automatically indicate that the opposing party has satisfied its burden and must be granted summary judgment on its motion. Id. I may grant summary judgment only if one of the moving parties is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the basis of the material facts not in dispute. See Mitchell v. McCarty, 239 F.2d 721, 723 (7th Cir.1957).

III. DISCUSSION
A. Applicable Law

Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to "discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's ... religion." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). The statute defines "religion" to include "all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief." Id. § 2000e(j). The definition imposes on an employer an "affirmative duty" to reasonably accommodate the "religious observance and practices of its employees, unless the employer can demonstrate that such an accommodation would cause undue hardship to the conduct of its business." EEOC v. Ilona of Hungary, Inc., 108 F.3d 1569, 1574 (7th Cir.1997) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j)).

As a threshold matter, the plaintiff must show that his or her beliefs constitute a "religion" under the meaning of Title VII. See id. The determination of what is a religion or religious belief "is more often than not a difficult and delicate task." Thomas v. Review Bd. of the Ind. Employment Sec. Div., 450 U.S. 707, 714, 101 S.Ct. 1425, 67 L.Ed.2d 624 (1981); see also Africa v. Pa., 662 F.2d 1025, 1031 (3d Cir.1981) ("Few tasks that...

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