LAW REQUIRES REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION OF RELIGIOUS BELIEFS, PRACTICES
Q: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of an individual’s religion. It protects all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as beliefs, and applies to prospective employees and existing employees. To what extent must an employer accommodate religious beliefs in the workplace?
A: The requests for accommodation must be reasonable. Many requests are easy to accommodate, such as the wearing of a hijab, wearing a skirt instead of jeans, adjusting a work schedule to accommodate the Sabbath, or a special religious observance. Employers who refuse to consider reasonable accommodations often make the news. Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced that it settled two religious accommodation lawsuits, both of which involved requests by Pentecostal Apostolic employees to be permitted to wear skirts instead of the pants and blue jeans that were required by their employers’ respective dress codes. You may recall the EEOC lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch over its refusal to hire a young, qualified Muslim woman who wore a hijab because it did not believe she would present the image consistent with its brand. Another employer was sued because it fired a Jehovah’s Witnesses employee, who was a server at a restaurant, for failing to sing “Happy Birthday” to a customer, because it was not permitted by her religion.
Q: When is a religious accommodation request unreasonable?
A: If the accommodation would cause an undue hardship for the employer, the accommodation is not required. The undue hardship can be shown if accommodating the employee’s religious practices requires more than ordinary administrative costs, diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, causes co-workers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work, or if the proposed accommodation conflicts with another law or regulation. Employers aren’t required to change their operations to implement an accommodation.
Q: What constitutes a religion?
A: The ambiguity of “religion” can put employers in difficult positions. Religion is personal and subjective, and, as a result, Title VII’s protection extends to a sincerely held belief. Religion need not be an organized or traditional religion, such as Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism or Islam. It does not need to be from recognized teachings. It doesn’t require identification with a God or deity; atheism also is protected under Title VII. Congress has defined religion in the context of another federal law as a belief in a relation to a supreme being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation.
Q: What are the consequences of an employer’s failure to accommodate a religious belief?
A: Religious discrimination lawsuits can involve claims by prospective employees of failure to hire because of the individual’s religion. They can involve claims by existing employees for discrimination with respect to terms and conditions of employment, such as a refusal to promote, transfer or provide a raise. They can involve claims of failure to accommodate specific needs for religious observance. They also can involve claims of a hostile work environment on the basis of religion. Potential recovery can include recovery of back pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorney fees.
Kathy Neal is a labor and employment lawyer with McAfee & Taft.