Required Accomodations for Employee’s Religious Beliefs

Employers can often find themselves confused and frustrated when trying to determine exactly what their obligations are when an employee comes to them with a request or concern related to the employee’s religious beliefs. Most employers want their employees to feel comfortable and respected, but also want to avoid disrupting the workplace, offending other employees in the company, or being taken advantage of. Accordingly, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act attempts to strike a balance of respecting an employee’s beliefs while not forcing employers to bend over backwards to avoid a lawsuit.

Title VII requires an employer, once that employer is on notice that an employee has a religious accommodation that is needed, to reasonably accommodate that employee. To truly understand what that means, we need to determine the meaning of the phrases used under Title VII.

“Religion” is defined very broadly in Title VII, and includes not only traditional major religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but also religious beliefs that are new, informal, or rare. Even atheism, the lack of a religious belief, is protected. The Court will generally resolve doubts about the nature of an employee’s belief in favor of finding that they are religious. However, an employee cannot claim that a belief is religious in nature simply because the belief is strongly held- personal preferences and social, political, and economic philosophies are not “religious” beliefs protected by Title VII.

There is always the concern that an employee will manufacture a religious belief in order to receive preferential treatment, or to tailor their working situation to his/her liking. To address that concern, Title VII requires employers to accommodate only religious beliefs that are “sincerely held.” Factors which are considered in determining an employee’s sincerity include, but are not limited to: whether the employee has behaved consistently with the professed belief, whether the accommodation sought would be desirable for non-religious reasons, and whether the timing of the request renders it suspect. None of these factors alone are determinate- people can change their beliefs as time passes- but together they can be useful in determining the sincerity of an employee requesting an accommodation. If an employer has genuine questions or concerns regarding an employee’s request, it is permitted under Title VII to ask the employee reasonable questions to seek further information.

An employer is not expected to be a mind reader, or an expert on the rules of all religions. The burden is on the employee who is seeking a religious accommodation to make the employer aware both that the accommodation is needed, and that the reason it is being requested is due to a conflict between religion and work.

Common requests for religious accommodations include requesting a schedule change to attend church services or avoid working on holy days, requesting an exception to the company’s dress code (to, for example, grow a beard, wear a yarmulke, wear a headscarf, or dress more conservatively), or requesting to be excused from a company’s morning prayer. These accommodations are generally considered reasonable and are often granted. However, there is no bright line rule saying that they must be. This is because Title VII does not require an employer to make any accommodation for an employee’s religious beliefs that would “pose an undue hardship.”

An accommodation is considered to pose an undue hardship if it would cause a “more than de minimis” cost or burden. This is a lower standard than an employer faces to show an undue hardship in accommodating an employee with a disability, which is defined in the Americans With Disability Act as “significant difficulty or expense.” When dealing with religious accommodations, factors to consider when determining the cost or burden include the following:

  • The type of workplace
  • The nature of the employee’s duties
  • The identifiable cost of the accommodation in relation to the size and operating costs of the employer
  • The number of employees who will need the accommodation.

To prove undue hardship, an employer must demonstrate the cost or burden that providing the accommodation would involve. “Cost” in this regard is not limited to monetary costs but also to the burden on the employer’s business. However, these costs need to be real and quantifiable- an employer cannot rely on hypothetical hardships that may occur in the future, such as the possibility that future religious employees may request the same accommodation. Further, the general jealousy and resentment of other co-workers is not considered an undue hardship.

It is important to note that while an employer is required to make religious accommodations unless there is an undue hardship, it is not required that they make the exact accommodation the employee is requesting. If the employer provides an alternative accommodation which meets the employee’s religious needs, the employee must cooperate. It is also allowed, and often encouraged, for the employee and employer to work together to come up with an accommodation that works best for everyone involved.

An experienced employment law attorney should be consulted for all questions or concerns about your obligations to accommodate your employee’s religious beliefs. Please feel free to contact this office and meet with one of our experienced attorneys about any such questions or concerns.