Federal law requires employers to provide employees with reasonable accommodations that enable them to perform their essential job functions in keeping with an employee’s religious requirements.
Recent court decisions have underscored the seriousness of this federal mandate. In Florida, a federal jury recently awarded a hefty $21.5 million verdict in favor of a dishwasher who was fired after refusing to work Sundays. The plaintiff alleged religious discrimination on the part of her employer.
Religious Accommodation: What the Law Requires
In addition to prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, race, national origin, color, and religion, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, also includes an accommodation requirement.
The law requires that employers, upon notice by an employee or prospective employee, must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer’s business.
For employers, this means possibly being required to make reasonable adjustments to the work environment that will allow an employee to practice his or her religion.
The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for enforcing the requirements of Title VII, defines religious practices to include:
“Moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.”
And, according to the EEOC, “religious beliefs” are not limited to what are commonly known as traditional religions, but extends to non-traditional affiliations and views, as long as the employee “sincerely” holds the belief. Even if the religious beliefs seem illogical or unreasonable, courts decline “to question the correctness or even the plausibility of the religious understandings.”
Religious Discrimination is Prevalent in the U.S.
Though not as numerous as sexual harassment claims, over 7,600 of which were filed with the EEOC in 2018, the number of claims of religious discrimination are still quite significant.
According to an article in the Houston Medical Journal by Janet Hendrick, Partner, Fisher Phillips LLP,
"In 2016, the EEOC received and resolved nearly 4,000 charges of discrimination alleging religious discrimination. That number has remained fairly steady for the past five years, indicating employees will likely continue to claim religious discrimination, including failure to accommodate."
Employers must not only comply with the mandate to provide reasonable accommodations for employers, but the requirement extends to job applicants, as well. The federal regulations provide that employers,
“(M)ay not permit an applicant’s need for a religious accommodation to affect in any way its decision whether to hire the applicant unless it can demonstrate that it cannot reasonably accommodate the applicant’s religious practices without undue hardship.”
In addition to being somewhat ambiguous in its language, the provisions of Title VII are weighted heavily in favor of the employee or candidate.
Few Exceptions to the Rule
In her article, Hendricks notes that there is really only one exception for employers.
"The sole exception to the duty to accommodate religious practices is one familiar to those who assess disability accommodations: undue hardship. If an employer can prove—and the burden is on the employer here—that accommodation would result in undue hardship on the conduct of its business, the employer may lawfully refuse to accommodate."
And even the phrase "undue hardship" is subject to differing interpretations and standards under the ADA and Title VII. Hendricks points out that there is no clearly defined rule or standard to assess whether an accommodation causes undue hardship. In practice, both the EEOC and the courts analyze inquiries on a case-by-case basis.
However, there is court case precedence to provide some limitations on what aggrieved employees can claim against their employers. One case, for example established that, among other things, employers are not required to provide other opportunities for overtime if an employee asks to not work on certain days when overtime would have been paid.
But employers would still be wise to tread carefully in the potential costly legal landmines of religious accommodation for employees.
Religious Accommodation and Employer Best Practices
Because of the variety of issues that are involved with this aspect of Title VII protections, it is advise able to consult with a legal resource that is knowledgeable with employment law before creating policies or making decisions regarding questionable accommodation requests.
In the meantime, here are some tips from a post by Steven T. Collis, chair of Holland & Hart’s nationwide religious institutions and First Amendment practice group:
1. Consider each request individually
2. Anything more than nominal is undue hardship
3. Be flexible on scheduling
4. Don’t segregate workers who need religious accommodations
5. Avoid retaliation
Collis also notes in concluding his article,
"As with many tricky workplace issues, religious accommodations require an open dialog with the requesting employee and a case-by-case analysis regarding what will work for your operation. If the request will result in more than a de minimis burden or cost on your organization, you may be able to deny providing it, but be sure to consider the wide range of possible accommodations before relying on an undue hardship defense."
California Employers, Employee Policies and HR Management
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