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An Employer's Duty To Accommodate Religious Practices And Beliefs Of Employees

The Civil Rights Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against an employee on the basis of his or her religion. In addition, the act requires an employer to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of an employee or prospective employee unless the employer can demonstrate such accommodation would result in undue hardship on the conduct of its business. The EEOC has found in general that employers have not always accommodated certain religious practices or beliefs of employees, such as: (1) observing a Sabbath or religious holiday; (2) an employee's need for prayer breaks during working hours; (3) an employee's need to follow certain dietary requirements of his or her religion; (4) an employee's request to not work during a mourning period for a deceased relative; (5) an employee's religion which prohibits medical examinations; (6) an employee's religion which prohibits membership in labor or other organizations; and, (7) an employee's religious practices concerning dress and other personal grooming habits. Moreover, the EEOC has noted that these considerations have been disregarded for prospective employees when employers schedule tests or other selection procedures when an employee cannot attend because of his or her religious practices. Further, employers have asked inappropriate questions concerning the applicant's religion.
The good news is that religious accommodation is not as burdensome under the Civil Rights Acts as accommodation under other laws, such as the ADA. The EEOC has offered the following accommodations to allow an employee to abide by his or her religious practices or beliefs. First, the employer should allow voluntary substitutes and "swaps" whenever available. In a number of cases, the individual seeking the accommodation has been able to secure a substitute with substantially similar qualifications to perform the job. Employers are encouraged to seek voluntary substitutes when an employee needs time off for religious beliefs. Some means of doing this are publicizing policies regarding accommodation and voluntary substitution, and promoting an atmosphere of voluntary substitutions by providing a central file, bulletin board or other means where employees can voluntarily substitute for each other in the circumstances. Second, the EEOC suggests flexible scheduling be allowed to the employee requesting accommodation. This could include allowing the employee to have flexible arrival and departure times, floating or optional holidays, flexible work breaks, use of lunch time in exchange for early departure time, staggered work hours, or permitting the employee to make up time lost due to the observance of religious practices.
The third accommodation suggested by the EEOC is that an employer consider whether it is possible to change the job assignment or give the employee a lateral transfer when an employee cannot be accommodated either as to his or her entire job or an assignment within the job. In this regard, the employer should make sure that the offered accommodation will, in fact, eliminate the conflict between the employee's practices and work. Naturally, an employer must be cautious in this regard, especially if the proposed transfer is to a less desirable or lower paying job - or it could result in a suit for religious discrimination practices. It is recommended that the employer seek assistance of counsel if the employer plans to propose such a transfer under this third alternative.
It is a defense to a charge of failure to accommodate religious practices if an employer can show that the proposed accommodation would impose an undue hardship upon the employer. An example of what might constitute an undue hardship from a cost standpoint includes having to hire an extra employee to act as a floater.
While not as stringent as the Americans With Disabilities Act, the religious discrimination laws require that an employer undertake an accommodation analysis to consider an employee's religious practices and beliefs and refrain from taking any discriminatory actions against the employee who makes such requests.
About the author

Ron Smith

Managing Partner

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