Legal

Observance of Wiccan New Year Ends in Religious Discrimination Suit

By Staff Report

Oct. 23, 2009

Last Halloween, Gina Uberti took vacation days to celebrate the Wiccan new year in Salem, Massachusetts, the town infamously known for the witch trials of 1692 that ended with the hanging of 14 women.


Less than a month after Uberti took part in the festivities of Samhain, one of the holiest days in the Wiccan calendar, she was fired from her job as a district sales manager for Bath & Body Works.


In a complaint filed in federal court in Connecticut last week, Uberti alleges she was unfairly terminated for practicing Wicca, known as the largest of neopagan religions.


Uberti alleges in the lawsuit that her boss said just before she was fired, “You will need a new career in your new year. … I will be damned if I have a devil worshiper on my team.”


Uberti says in the suit that her troubles at work began shortly after she returned from her trip to Salem. Her boss lamented that Uberti had chosen to go on vacation during a particularly important week at work, Uberti said. Uberti said her vacation had been approved by another manager a year in advance and that she had taken that particular time to celebrate a Wiccan holiday.


“That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Uberti’s boss, Sandra Scibelli said, according to court documents.


Until she was fired November 20, 2008, Uberti had worked for the retailer for eight years, first as a manager in the company’s Milford, Connecticut, store and then as a sales manager from her home in nearby East Haven.


Uberti filed charges in February with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which granted her the right to sue in September.


Bath & Body Works is part of Limited Brands Inc, based in Columbus, Ohio.


“We are an equal opportunity employer and do not discriminate against race, color, religion, gender, gender identity, national origin, citizenship, age, disability, sexual orientation or marital status,” says Robin Hoffman, specialist, external communications for Limited Brands. “Additionally, we do not comment on pending litigation.”


Uberti’s lawsuit seeks compensatory damages for emotional distress and damage to her career as well as lost pay, vacation days and pension benefits, as well as other restitution.


Tal Marnin, an attorney with White & Case in New York, says U.S. law prohibits religious discrimination regardless of whether the religion is widely practiced or not.


“The employee has to show she is a sincere believer and that her attending the ceremony was part of her religious observance and practice,” Marnin said.


The company would have to show Uberti’s absence caused it an “undue hardship,” Marnin said.


The Wiccan new year, Samhain, takes place the same day as the Celtic new year. It is considered one of the four holy festivals, or Sabbats, according to the complaint. Uberti says in her complaint that for the previous six years she had received and taken time off to make the annual new year’s pilgrimage to Salem.


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects covered employees from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.


—Jeremy Smerd


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