Tag Archives: Religious Accommodations

Avoiding Holiday Pitfalls in the Workplace: Religious Accommodations

Contributed by Brian Wacker, October 23, 2019

The holiday season is fast approaching. What should be a joyful time filled with family, friends and festivities is all too often the opposite for employers: a season filled with legal and logistical challenges with their employees. 

Vacation, holiday and leave on paper note stick on the calendar of December for year end holidays concept

One of these potential challenges is the employer’s legal obligation to accommodate employees’ sincerely-held religious beliefs. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as various state legislation such as the Illinois Human Rights Act and the Missouri Human Rights Act, prohibits employment discrimination based on religion. Generally speaking, this means that employers must reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer. 

So what is a “sincerely held belief” and what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation?”  Unfortunately, the answer can often be as clear as eggnog.

For purposes of Title VII and state legislation, the term “religion” is defined broadly.  It includes “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief,” which courts and the EEOC have interpreted to include not only traditional religions like Christianity, Judaism or Islam, but also religions that are “new, uncommon, nor part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical and unreasonable to others.”  In other words, so long as the employee has articulated a belief in a religion concerning “ultimate ideas” about “life, purpose and death,” courts will find that the belief is religious meriting protection.  And employers should note that this does not only apply to traditional practices of religion; rather, it can also extend to religious dress or grooming based on religious beliefs or practices.

So that employee who seeks an accommodation based on her practice of Satanism?  If she has a sincerely held belief in it, she must be reasonably accommodated. Whether a belief is “sincerely held” can be a tough question to resolve, especially when an employer has suspicion that the request for accommodation is not made in good faith, or when the employee has behaved in the past in a manner markedly different from the professed belief. However, employers should be cautious in making such a determination and not assume that a belief is insincere just because some of the employee’s practices deviate from commonly followed tenets of the religion.

What makes a hardship for an employer “undue?” 

Basically, a hardship is undue if it can be shown that the accommodation would impose “more than a de minimis cost” on the operation of the employer’s business. While this will necessarily be a case-by-case determination, employers should consider the type of workplace involved, the nature of the employee’s duties, the identifiable costs of the accommodation in relation to the employer’s size and the effect the accommodation will have on other employees. If a religious practice will conflict with security or safety requirements, it likely will not need to be accommodated, unless the security or safety requirement is a unilaterally-imposed requirement by the employer and it could be reasonably modified or eliminated.

For far too many employers these days, the holidays bring about more headaches than anything.  Staying up to date on issues, such as religious accommodation requirements, can help you avoid the holiday blues. 

Register Now! Holiday Headaches: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Common Issues in the Workplace

For many employers, the holiday season brings about holiday woes – reduced staffing levels, wage and hour issues, and accommodating religious beliefs – all of which can make compliance a more complicated process.

Join Brian Wacker on Thursday, November 7 at 12:00 PM CT for the latest installment of our Labor and Employment Quarterly Series as he helps employers balance the needs of the business with the rights of the employees by creating an inclusive policy.

Specific topics include:

  • How to incorporate religious accommodation law into your policy;
  • Identifying the federal and state paid leave laws;
  • How to manage Holiday Pay; and
  • How to avoid potential liability following an accident or sexual harassment claims at an office party

Who should attend? HR professionals, managers, and business owners

We hope you can via webinar!

Zap! It’s the Devil – No Really: Accommodating Religious Beliefs

Contributed by Beverly Alfon, June 21, 2017

Imagine that in order to increase time and attendance record accuracy and efficiency, you have invested in a new biometric time clock system. This makes good business sense and overall, it is a straightforward issue…until HR tells you that an employee has refused to use the time clock for religious reasons.

34405947 - man reading the definition of faith

Man reading the definition of faith on a computer screen

In U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Consol Energy, Inc., (4th Cir. June 12, 2017), a coal mine worker who was a practicing evangelical Christian, refused to use a hand scanner time clock because he believed that it would “mark” him with the sign of the Antichrist. The employee offered to verbally report his time in or out, or to use a conventional punch clock. The employer responded with a letter from the scanner manufacturer indicating that because the Bible only refers to the “Mark of the Beast” as associated only with the right hand or forehead, use of the left hand in the scanner should not be of concern. The employer told the employee to use his left hand for the scanner. In response, the employee resigned and filed an Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) charge.

Notably, the employer was already accommodating two other employees who had hand injuries.  They were allowed to enter their employee identification numbers into a keypad – instead of using the scanner. The EEOC brought an enforcement action against the coal mine for failure to accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs in violation of Title VII and construction discharge.  At trial, the EEOC and employee won. The award was $150,000 in damages, plus $436,860 in front pay, back pay and lost benefits. The coal mine appealed the decision.

The coal mine argued that there was no conflict between the employee’s religious beliefs and the requirement that he use the hand scanner system, especially in light of the employee’s admission that even his pastor did not believe that use of the hand scanner would produce a physical mark.    However, the appellate court found it significant that the employee clearly laid out his religious objection to using the system overall and there was no dispute that his beliefs were sincere. The court reasoned that it is not the employer’s place to “question the correctness or even the plausibility of [the plaintiff’s] religious understandings,” and affirmed the lower court verdict and findings.

Bottom line:  This case serves as a reminder that an employer cannot escape the requirement to accommodate simply because it thinks that an employee’s religious belief is nonsensical or mistaken. If there is enough evidence to show that the employee sincerely holds a religious belief that contradicts job requirements, an employer should consider an accommodation.

EEOC Issues Guidance on Religious Accommodations for Religious Garb and Grooming Under Title VII

Contributed by Michael Wong

On March 6, the EEOC issued guidance on Title VII’s application to the issue of religious garb and grooming in the workplace. The guidance does not create any new obligations for employers. Rather, it illustrates the complex nature of accommodating religious beliefs and practices, and provides insight into how the EEOC views employers’ legal responsibilities with respect to religious garb and grooming under Title VII. It also indicates this will be an area of increased EEOC enforcement in coming years.

Title VII protects all aspects of religious observance, practice, and belief. Title VII defines religion broadly to include not only traditional, organized religions, but also uncommon religious beliefs that are not part of a formal church or sect. Title VII’s protection extends to any practice motivated by religious belief, even if others engage in the same practice for purely secular reasons. That being said, Title VII only applies to religious beliefs that are “sincerely held.” While employers may legally question whether a religious belief is sincerely held, the EEOC’s guidance cautions that the sincerity of a religious belief is usually not in dispute in a claim of religious discrimination.

The guidance stresses that employers may not automatically refuse to accommodate an applicant or employee’s religious garb or grooming practice, even if it violates the employers’ dress code, uniform policy or expectations regarding appearance. Instead, an employer must allow the religious practice unless it can show that accommodating the practice places an undue hardship on its business operations. An undue hardship is something more than a de minimis cost or burden. Title VII also prevents employers from taking actions against employees based on the discriminatory religious preferences of others, including customers, clients or co-workers. For example, it is unlawful to re-assign an employee to a non-customer service position because of customer complaints about the employee’s religious garb.

In light of this guidance, employers should review their policies to make sure they clearly state a commitment to reasonably accommodate religious beliefs and prohibit discrimination and harassment based on religion. Additionally, employers should educate their management team on the proper procedures for responding to religious discrimination complaints and accommodation requests based on religion. Finally, if faced with a request for an accommodation based on a religious belief, employers should carefully evaluate whether the belief is sincerely held and whether providing an accommodation would impose an undue hardship.

Note that the EEOC guidance does not address any applicable state or local laws regarding religious discrimination or harassment. For example, the Illinois Human Rights Act also prohibits discrimination and harassment based on religion.  Employers should make sure that their policies are not only in line with Title VII, but any applicable state or local laws as well.