A county clerk in Kentucky says her religious beliefs bar her from issuing same-sex marriage licenses, and a federal judge tosses her in jail.

A coal miner in Pennsylvania is forced to retire after insisting a biometric hand scanner violates his beliefs, and a federal court awards him a cool half-million.

Two workplace religious freedom cases making news. Far different outcomes. What gives?

According to church and state experts there’s the short answer, and then there’s the long answer.

The short one is this: The miner, Beverly R. Butcher Jr., is an employee with standing to seek religious accommodation under the law, whereas Rowan County, Kentucky, Clerk Kim Davis is an elected official bound by oath to uphold the law. That changes how the legal system handles their claims for religious accommodation.

Of course, for the parties involved in religious freedom lawsuits filed in federal and state courts, the answer is more complicated.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) clarified rules for religious accommodations last year in response to the growing number of religious discrimination complaints. (The number of complaints has doubled since 1997.)

In February, an EEOC fact sheet showed it had filed 68 lawsuits for religious discrimination since 2010. Those suits are usually filed after an employee and their employer fail to work out a religious accommodation on their own. That figure doesn’t account for the countless suits filed over violations of city ordinances or state laws that don’t go through the EEOC.

Perhaps the best known EEOC case in recent years was the one Abercrombie and Fitch lost in the US Supreme Court in June, involving a Muslim woman who wasn’t hired ...

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