Accommodating Religion at Work

Consider the following factual situations and decide if an employer must accommodate the employee in question:

  • A deputy sheriff refuses to work on Saturday because she is a member of the Worldwide Church of God which observes a Saturday Sabbath. Her supervisor informs her that because the department is subject to a seniority system, he will not consider her request.
  • A car salesman asks for a morning off to participate in the conversion ceremony of his wife to Judaism. The day happens to coincide with the employer’s biggest sale of the year and the employer refuses to grant the employee’s request.
  • A department store sales associate tells her supervisor a vision from God requires her to visit a religious shrine during a certain week when other employees have already requested leave. The supervisor will experience difficulty covering the sales woman’s work shifts. The supervisor declines the woman’s leave request.
  • A custodian who practices the Jehovah’s Witness religion, refuses to set up tables and chairs in a conference room containing decorations for a “madrigal” dinner. He explains that his religion prohibits him from participating in Christmas or other “pagan” holiday celebrations. His supervisor tells him that he must set up the tables and chairs.
  • A Rastafarian refuses to cut his dreadlocks when his supervisor so requests based upon the dress code established in the employee handbook.

In all but one of the above examples, the woman who requested leave based upon a vision from God, courts have held that the supervisor erred in refusing to accommodate the employee’s request. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, an employer must accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs unless the employer would experience undue hardship.

Title VII makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate “against any individual with respect to their compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s...religion.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Religion is defined to include all aspects of religious observance.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued interpretive guidelines to make clear that Title VII protects any religious belief, mainstream or not, if practices or beliefs are “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.”

Courts have held that an employee must provide an employer with enough information to permit the employer to understand the existence of a conflict between the employee’s religious practices and the employer’s job requirements. An example of sufficient notice is “I am not able to work on Saturday because of my religious obligation.” Once an employee gives notice of a religious conflict with assigned job duties, the employer cannot delve into the religious practices of the employee in order to determine whether religion mandates the employee’s adherence. Instead, the employer must, at a minimum, negotiate with the employee in an effort to reasonably accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs. The employer need not make an effort to accommodate if they can show that any accommodation would impose undue hardship. Courts have defined an “undue hardship” as any accommodation resulting in more than a de minimis (insignificant) cost to an employer. Obviously, a de minimis accommodation to General Motors Corporation might result in undue hardship to a mom and pop’s retail operation. So, courts will examine each case individually.

The good news for employers is they generally need not worry that employment policies will violate an employee’s obscure or mainstream religious beliefs. Except in blatant cases where, say, an employer knows an employee’s religion and refuses to promote him or requires employees to participate in religious rituals, employees must inform employers of a conflict between business rules and religious beliefs.

San Diego State University seeks to promote diversity in all areas, including religion. Title VII promotes diversity by maintaining a balance between religious beliefs and employment policies. Employees may devoutly practice religious beliefs without imposing burdens on SDSU or employees of other religious persuasions. If you have any questions, call the Office of Employee Relations and Compliance and we will help negotiate agreeable accommodations and define the type of accommodations generally viewed by courts as posing undue hardship.