Religion has been a hot topic in the American media in recent weeks. Thus, this is a good time to review the sections of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibit religious discrimination. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the number of religion-based charges filed under Title VII has increased significantly in recent years. During the last twelve years, that number has nearly doubled; the number of charges filed in fiscal year 2009 was 3,386. The monetary benefits received as a result of those charges has also grown exponentially.

As an example, earlier this month the EEOC filed suit against a company that allegedly discriminated against an employee by requiring the employee to work on the day she observed the Sabbath. Last month, the EEOC filed suit against a major department store because it allegedly failed to accommodate the religious beliefs of an employee. The EEOC alleges that the employee, who is a Jehovah’s Witness, was required to wear a Santa hat and apron while working gift wrap during the Christmas season. Earlier this year, a national company was sued by the EEOC for religious discrimination after it advertised on Craig’s List for a recruiter “to assist in hiring LDS missionaries for seasonal employment.”

Although each of these examples highlights allegedly discriminatory acts involving organized religion, Title VII broadly defines “religion” to encompass “all aspects of religious observance and practice as well as belief.” Religion includes not only traditional religions, such as Christianity and Judaism, but also beliefs that are uncommon or not part of a traditional group.

As the above cases illustrate, failure to accommodate claims tend to be the subject of much litigation. Title VII requires employers to accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observations conflict with a work rule, unless providing the accommodation constitutes an undue hardship. The undue hardship defense for religious accommodation is a much lower standard than the undue hardship defense under the Americans with Disabilities Act that employers tend to encounter on a more frequent basis. An undue hardship requires only a showing that the proposed accommodation poses “more than de minimis” cost or burden to the employer. The employer has the burden to show that the accommodation poses an undue hardship, and the determination as to whether an accommodation poses an undue hardship is made on a case-by-case basis.

If an employee desires a religious accommodation, he or she has a responsibility to inform his or her employer of the need for the accommodation. Once this request is made, the employer should confer with the employee about the request. Accommodations that are often found to be reasonable include modifying work schedules to allow employees to attend religious events or making exceptions to dress and grooming standards to allow employees to wear certain religious items. Excusing an employee from being required to take part in a prayer that may be used to begin the business day also would likely be a reasonable accommodation.

Joseph Leonoro concentrates his practice in matters involving labor and employment law.
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