Numerology and the Law

Once upon a time, I had a client from Another Land Far Beyond The Seas, who was a tetraphobe. He hired me because neither my bar number, my firm’s address, nor its telephone number contained the number four, nor did they numerologically add up to four. (In our initial conversation, this client educated me that, for instance, the number “1876” is really “1 + 8 + 7 + 6” which is “22” which then becomes “2 + 2”, so “1876” = “4” and therefore “1876” was a bad number.) I wasn’t proud; I accepted the work even though this was the unorthodox manner in which it had come my way.

My client instructed me that I must ensure that the case number which the Court assigned to the lawsuit he wished for me to file on his behalf would neither contain the number four nor numerologically add up four. I could make no such guarantee and in fact, the court did assign us a forbidden “four” number. We wound up losing, a result which the client attributed to my carelessness in allowing the court to assign this number (ignoring the dichotomy that if a “four” number was unlucky for us, it was also simultaneously be lucky for the other side).

So I realize that stuff like this isn’t nearly as uncommon as you might think:

Billy E. Hyatt claims he was fired from Pliant Corp., a plastics factory in  northern Georgia near Dalton, after he refused to wear a sticker proclaiming  that his factory had been accident-free for 666 days. That number is considered  the “mark of the beast” in the Bible’s Book of Revelation describing the  apocalypse.

Hyatt, who said he’s a devout Christian, had worked for the north Georgia  plastics company since June 2007 and like other employees wore stickers each day  that proclaimed how long the factory had gone without an accident.

On the other hand, if we’re going to protect religion with the force and power of Federal antidiscrimination laws regulating the private workplace, then we should do so uniformly and evenhandedly. Mr. Hyatt has a religious aversion to wearing the number 666 and there’s every reason to believe that he is 100% sincere in it.

Now, to you and me and most of the rest of the rational world, 666 is just a number (not a bit unlike the number 4). But some people assign mystical, magical, religious, literary, or other significance to it. (They might be wrong though; the number of the beast could be 616 instead, which would mean that no Christian can live in Muskegon, Michigan.) Well, you’re allowed to have whatever religious beliefs seem right to you here in these United States and if Mr. Hyatt has a sincere belief that the number 666 is unholy, then that is his belief and darn it, that belief is protected by law even if it seems irrational to the rest of us.

And is this belief any sillier or less worthy of attention than an orthodox Jew requesting an alternative uniform because the required uniform is made of a polyester/cotton blend? Or a Muslim asking to time lunch and rest breaks to coincide with the times for prayer?

So although it seems improbable in the extreme to me to think that a Christian would be the victim of religious discrimination in north Georgia, I cheerfully say, “Good luck to you, Mr. Hyatt.” Just like my former client, I think your aversion to a mere number is weird, superstitious, and silly. That’s probably what you think of my atheistic belief sytem, too… which is totally cool. You get the same rights as me, and if your rights aren’t protected, then mine are at risk too — so, with all sincerity, I wish you the very best of luck in your judicial quest to state your case before a jury of your peers and get your job back.

…Or, more realistically, somewhere between twelve to eighteen months from now, if a judge thinks your employer hasn’t been able to offer non-pretextual documentation of some other legitimate reason to have fired you, then after a meeting with a Federal Magistrate conducting a settlement conference, to pocket about eight month’s worth of wages, get some money to pay off your lawyer, and sign a confidential covenant to never again apply for work with your former employer, but that’s my cynical experience talking rather than my starry-eyed idealism.

Hat tip to Prof. Howard Friedman for the story.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Seems like there were a bunch of official or passive ways around this conflict. His boss could have said it was fine not to wear the sticker, could have looked the other way or just reprimanded him without firing him. Or the dude could have called in sick or dropped his hammer on his toe on day 665.

    But in the end nothing is ever simple. That company clearly was a bit on the authoritarian side with no ability to focus on important matters.

  2. Speaking of 666, ever hear of a guy named Ronald Wilson Reagan?

    • I was in 10th grade in 1980, and I remember hearing a few–albeit only a few–people seriously asking whether Reagan might be the anti-christ. Yes, I was religious enough back then to have some qualms about that.

      • If I recall correctly, that one comes from Martin Garner’s Mathematical Games column in the Scientific American. Another of his: The founder of Seventh-Day Adventism was named Ellen Gould White. If you remove everything but the Roman numerals from her name (and consider U to be the same as V and W to be two U’s and thus two V’s), you get

        L L V L D V V I

        which adds up to 666.

  3. I find it hard to fathom that a company would fire a guy for not wearing an “accident free” sticker for a single day. I mean, I can easily fathom bosses who are a-hole enough to make a really big deal out of it instead of just quietly respecting the guy’s religious beliefs. I’ve had that type of boss, several times. But to go all the way to firing someone over that? It leads me to suspect there’s more to the case than Mr. Hyatt is telling us.

  4. The number 4 sounds like (or maybe the inverted character looks like) death in mandarin. Its pretty common where I live. So sometimes few chinese especially the traditional kind would be willing to live on the 4th floor (13 can be bad because it adds up to 4 or because people have been infected with western superstitions about that number). The 8th floor on the other hand is popular because the inverted character bears looks a lot like the character for luck in chinese.

      • 18 is lucky too, because it’s the value of the Hebrew word for “life”.

    • In Japanese, the number 4 has two pronunciations. The first one, ‘shi,’ is also the word for death, and the Japanese will often say ‘yon’ instead.

  5. It’s interesting, and probably makes me look like some nut job (others apparently are more enlightened and have no superstitions). But I still am suspicious of the number “6,” “666,” and “18” [the latter, because it’s the sum of 3 sixes], even though I consider myself an agnostic. I wouldn’t go so far as to never use it.

    However, if my assigned telephone prefix were “666,” a not unheard of prefix in Chicago and somewhat apropos of what the city is like,* then I would probably want to have it changed.

    *I’m not a fan of Carl Sandburg.

    • We all have our idiosyncracies, Pierre. We still like you despite your superstition.

        • Does anyone still read Ambrose Bierce?

          The Foolish Woman

          A Married Woman, whose lover was about to reform by running away, procured a pistol and shot him dead.

          “Why did you do that, Madam?” inquired a Policeman, sauntering by.

          “Because,” replied the Married Woman, “he was a wicked man, and had purchased a ticket to Chicago.”

          “My sister,” said an adjacent Man of God, solemnly, “you cannot stop the wicked from going to Chicago by killing them.”

    • Bedford, NY (or Bedford Hills, maybe?) had 666 as the first three numbers of the seven-digits waaay back in the late 80’s.

  6. Had to post couldn’t leave the comments at 13…could be unlucky : )

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