Legal Briefs: Science as religion

Every Friday on, Legal Briefs reviews cases that involve, or provide valuable lessons to, federal managers. We report on the decisions of a wide range of review panels, including the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Federal Labor Relations Authority and federal courts.

In April 1999, Paul LaViolette lost his tech job at the Commerce Department's Patent and Trademark Office and was denied the opportunity to get rehired at a PTO job fair.

Soon after, he filed a complaint with Commerce, alleging that the agency discriminated against him based on his unconventional beliefs about cold fusion and other technologies. Cold fusion is a controversial scientific theory that says nuclear fusion reactions can occur at room temperature.

The agency dismissed LaViolette's claim, saying that his allegations of discrimination did not fall under protected equal employment opportunity activity. LaViolette then filed an appeal with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission arguing that "discrimination against a person on account of his beliefs is the essence of discrimination on the basis of religion."

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

The EEOC agreed with LaViolette, citing the Supreme Court case, Welsh v. United States, which stated an individual's beliefs are protected under Title VII if the belief espoused is sincerely held and has religious meaning to the individual.

The EEOC reversed the agency's decision and remanded the case.

Paul A. LaViolette v. William M. Daley, Secretary, Department of Commerce, EEOC (Appeal No. 01A01748), July 7, 2000


In 1994, the Social Security Administration took four disciplinary actions against Kathleen Atkins, who at that time had been with the agency for 17 years. SSA claimed three of the actions were due to Atkins' insubordination and discourtesy toward her supervisor.

The fourth disciplinary action-a 14 day suspension-was handed down after Atkins' argument with the agency's sign language interpreter. Atkins is deaf.

During the investigation of the incident with the interpreter, Atkins requested an outside interpreter, fearing that the agency-provided interpreter was biased. But SSA refused, requiring Atkins to use the interpreter involved in the altercation.

Atkins filed a grievance alleging the agency had discriminated against her on the basis of physical disability-deafness. The arbitrator sided with SSA, and Atkins appealed to the EEOC.

The EEOC found in favor of Atkins, reversing the arbitrator's decision, reasoning that the agency's refusal to provide the complainant with an outside interpreter failed to reasonably accommodate Atkins' disability.

Kathleen Atkins v. Kenneth S. Apfel, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, EEOC (Appeal No. 02970004), July 24, 2000

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.