Try to accommodate employee’s religion– but don’t automatically agree if it’s a burden

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources

Some employees think that any restriction on their exercise of religious expression or dress is automatically illegal. That’s not true.

In fact, when faced with an employer’s request to remove an article of clothing such as a head scarf or other head covering, the employee must state that doing so would interfere with practicing her religion and that she would like an accommodation.

Then it’s up to the employee and the employer to try to work out a reasonable accommodation.

Plus, if the employee sues, she has to show that she holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with the employer’s request.

Recent case: Kenitha Laney worked as a probationary juvenile corrections officer for the Ohio Department of Youth Services. Then she was terminated, specifically for allegedly falling asleep on the job and for generally substandard performance.

She sued and alleged, among other claims, that she had been discriminated against because of her religion.

The basis for Laney’s religious discrimination complaint was a request from her supervisor that she remove a black head scarf she began wearing shortly after starting the job. When it made the request, the department cited safety concerns. Laney agreed to remove the scarf, and never explained why she was wearing the head covering in the first place.

The Department of Youth Services found out about her claimed religious practice only after she had been terminated and filed her lawsuit.

The department challenged her claim that she held a sincere religious belief that required her to wear a black head scarf. It turned out that at the time she was asked to remove the scarf for safety reasons, she had only recently decided she wanted to practice Islam. In fact, she got all her information about the religion from the Internet and could not explain basic Islamic principles. She also returned to a nondenominational Christian church after being terminated.

Under those circumstances, the court concluded that she had no religious discrimination case. (Laney v. Ohio Department of Youth Services, No. 2:08-CV-00919, SD OH, 2010)

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