The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has brought a lawsuit against United Airlines on behalf of a Buddhist pilot who was forced to attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings which are rooted in the Christian faith. The case, filed in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey on Monday, accuses United Airlines of religious discrimination and calls for the pilot to be compensated for loss of earnings from not being allowed to return to work.
David Disbrow, a veteran pilot with over 30 years experience at United Airlines alone, was diagnosed with being alcohol dependent in 2017 and entered a residential alcohol treatment program in 2018. The FAA stripped Disbrow of his pilot’s licence and he’ll remain grounded until be can prove he has recovered from his alcohol dependency.
In order to get his licence back, Disbrow was required to successfully complete an occupational substance abuse treatment program designed specifically for pilots. United’s program stipulated that participants must attend Alcoholic Anonymous and complete at least the first five steps of AA’s 12-step programme.
Those first five steps include two specific references to a Christian God and acknowledgement that a “greater Power exists”. As a Buddhist, Disbrow didn’t share these beliefs and felt uncomfortable beginning every session, held in a church, with a Christian prayer.
Instead, the grounded pilot found an alternative to AA called Refuge Recovery which was based on Buddhist principles. According to the lawsuit, Disbrow asked “repeatedly” to attend Refuge Recovery instead of AA, specifically because he objected to the religious content but these requests were allegedly rejected by United.
In the end, Disbrow filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunities Commission who sided with the pilot and asked United to amend what it viewed as “discriminatory practices”. United refused and attempts at conciliation were eventually abandoned in June 2020.
Now the EEOC wants a jury to find United guilty of religious discrimination and force the airline to accommodate Disbrow’s religion by allowing him to get his pilots licence back by attending Refuge Recovery instead of AA.
United has not yet responded to the complaint.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.