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After firing a Buddhist pilot for not going through a Christian-focused alcoholism recovery program, United Airlines has agreed to award that pilot back pay and change their policy for similar situations.

The pilot in question, David Disbrow, had worked for the airline for decades, but in 2017, after being diagnosed with substance abuse, his pilot’s license was suspended pending completion of a recovery program. All of that would have been perfectly appropriate… until he began attending meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous specifically tailored for pilots and realized it was a religious organization. The famous “Twelve Steps” include giving yourself over to “God” or “a Power greater than ourselves.” His meetings were held in a Christian church.

That was a problem for Disbrow because he’s a Buddhist who didn’t want to pledge allegiance to religious views he didn’t hold, in a place where he didn’t feel comfortable.

He soon learned about a nearly identical program called “Refuge Recovery” that catered to Buddhists and asked United if that would be a sufficient alternative. They said no. It was Alcoholics Anonymous or nothing. That meant he couldn’t complete the treatment program, which meant he couldn’t get his job back.

In 2020, he sued the airline with the help of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The argument in the lawsuit was fairly simple: United didn’t say there was a substantive difference between the two recovery programs; they just forced Disbrow to go through the quasi-Christian one, which violated his civil rights.

And now there’s finally a resolution: United Airlines will pay back Disbrow, reinstate him in their Human Intervention Motivational Study (HIMS) program (the road to getting his license back), and accommodate staffers in similar situations in the future. The EEOC explained the settlement in a press release:

Under the consent decree that resolves the lawsuit, United will pay the pilot $305,000 in back pay and damages and will reinstate him into its HIMS Program while allowing him to attend a non-12-step peer recovery program. The company will also accept religious accommo­dation requests in its HIMS Program going forward, institute a new policy on religious accom­modations, and train its employees.

“Employers have the affirmative obligation to modify their policies to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs,” said EEOC New York Regional Attorney Jeffrey Burstein. “If they require their employees to attend AA as part of a rehabilitation program, they must make sure that they allow for alternatives for their employees who have religious objections to AA.”

It’s the right decision. It shouldn’t have required a lawsuit or judges.

We’ve seen similar lawsuits in federal prisons from atheists. They’re not always successful, but whenever there’s a case where a simple accommodation is available, like there was in this case, it shouldn’t be that complicated.

(Portions of this article were published earlier)

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.