Religious Discrimination – What Every Business Owner Needs to Know

619763-LGSconundrumx-1382216657-586-640x480Under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer may not discriminate against an employee on the basis of his or her religion. Employer must make reasonable accommodations for the religious observances of its employees unless it creates undue hardship on the business. As you can imagine, whether a requested accommodation is “reasonable” and whether providing such accommodation would create an “undue hardship” on a business, are often two hotly contested issues in religious discrimination cases.

Employee’s burden. An employee will be required to present evidence of the following in order to establish a case of religious discrimination:

(1) employee held a good faith religious belief;

(2) employee’s belief conflicted with an employment requirement;

(3) employer was informed of that belief; and

(4) employee suffered an adverse employment action for failing to comply with the conflicting employment requirement.

An employee who fails to establish one of the above elements cannot prevail on its claim of religious discrimination.  For example, earlier this year, I wrote about an employee whose claim for religious discrimination was dismissed because she failed to show that she told her employer (as opposed to her co-workers) that she could not perform a job function due to her religious beliefs.  Thus, she failed to show that her employer knew about her religious beliefs (third element above).

Employer’s burden. If an employee presents evidence of each element above, the employer may defend by showing that:

(1) it reasonably accommodated the employee; or

(2) it was unable to reasonably accommodate the employee’s needs without undue hardship.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed what constitutes an “undue hardship” for an employer as it relates to religious accommodation under Title VII. In Davis v. Fort Bend Countythe county fired its technical support supervisor, who skipped work to attend a church function.  A few days before the county’s scheduled upgrade of its computer system, Ms. Davis notified her supervisor that she would not be present during the update because she planned on attending a church service during that time.  Although Ms. Davis arranged for a replacement during her absence, the County fired her.

The Fifth Circuit explained that an undue burden may arise when: (1) an employer has to force one employee to substitute for another’s religious observance; or (2) an employee’s absence from the job leaves the employer short-handed.  Neither of these factors, however, were present in Fort Bend County, since Ms. Davis was able to find a volunteer employee to cover for her absence due to a church function.  Thus, the county was not left short-handed or suffered any costs associated with Ms. Davis’ absence. Therefore, the county failed to establish an undue hardship.

BOTTOM LINE FOR BUSINESS OWNERS: When an employee requests time off or asks for another accommodation due to his or her religion, whatever that religion might be, a business owner should consider whether granting such a request will create an undue hardship on the business.  If the answer is “no,” then the request should be granted.

The most commonly requested religious accommodations have to do with the dress and/or grooming requirements associated with certain religions.  An employer facing such a request, should read the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace guide recently issued by the EEOC, which provides a lot of examples on how to handle specific requests.

Leiza Dolghih frequently advises employers on how to handle troublesome employees, assists with responding to EEOC charges, and litigates employment disputes. For more information, e-mail Leiza.Dolghih@GodwinLewis.com.

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