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Religious discrimination: Workplace compliance

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Title VII prevents acts of religious discrimination in the workplace. That means accommodating different religious beliefs, including those not tied to traditional religions. Religious discrimination lawsuits usually arise from conflicts over work schedules, dress codes for safety that bump up against religious practices, and First Amendment complaints about freedom of religious speech and activity in the workplace.

1. What should an employer do when an employee refuses to work a company-mandated Saturday shift because of his/her religion and requests religious accommodation instead?

The big question in a religious accommodation case: How much is enough? Clearly an employer does not have to disrupt work schedules, spend money for overtime, or create morale problems for other employees to satisfy the religious beliefs of an individual. That doesn't mean you can take employee requests for religious accommodation lightly, however. Courts are going after companies and their managers who fail to provide reasonable accommodation.

How you listen and react to an employee when first approached with a request for a religious accommodation sets the tone for a quick resolution or a major confrontation. If you simply push the dilemma back to the employee with "that's your problem" or "get a replacement or be here," you are almost guaranteed a religious discrimination charge.

If you sit down with the employee to discuss the problem, there's a good chance you can work something out. Even if there is no alternative, the employee would at least see that the effort is there. Usually that's all an employee or the courts will ask. So the first rule in dealing with a religious accommodation request is to listen patiently.

Also, ask the following before you act:

  • What are your company's required working hours? How are work schedules and assignments determined?
  • Why is it essential that an employee work during those periods that his/her religious beliefs prohibit working?
  • Are there other qualified employees who would be willing to substitute during those periods? How costly would it be for you to pay premium rates during those periods?
  • Are there reasons other than cost why you feel you must refuse to accommodate an employee? Have you ever accommodated other employees' religious needs?
  • Has the employee offered a possible accommodation to produce a compromise?
2. Is it a violation of employees' First Amendment rights to prevent them from engaging in religious activities at work?

When restricting religious practices at work, focus only on preventing and stopping religious discrimination and harassment. Be careful not to trample employees' personal freedoms of religious expression in the process. Also, keep in mind that you can't fire an employee because you fear that his/her religious practices might spark a religious discrimination lawsuit. By doing so, you may be inviting — rather than thwarting — such a claim.

3. Do all religious beliefs — regardless of how unorthodox they are — qualify for Title VII protection?

Title VII's requirement to reasonably accommodate employees' religious practices covers all sincere or bona fide beliefs. When determining whether or not a religious belief qualifies for Title VII protection, the courts typically apply the following requirements:

  • The religious belief must be sincerely held.
  • It may extend beyond beliefs and practices actually mandated by an individual's religion.
  • The belief must occupy a place in the believer's life similar to that filled by the idea of "God."
  • It must be distinct from mere personal moral code.
4. Must an employer alter dress code standards to accommodate an assembly-line employee who requests to wear a dress in accordance with her religious beliefs?

No. Safety is the key word when it comes to dress codes. If a company is able to prove that employee safety is at risk, no court will uphold a religious discrimination charge. A company cannot be expected to alter safety regulations for a single individual, regardless of the reason. Inconsistent application of the rule could jeopardize the safety of other employees.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Lane Boland September 24, 2012 at 3:44 am

Yes, it is very important for the employer to protect the right of employees. Nice post.


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