Title VII protects employees from discrimination based on their religion and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for religious practices. But the requirement isn’t absolute.
You don’t have to accommodate all religious needs if doing so is unreasonable. And you don’t have to give in to the exact accommodation that employees request.
Here’s how the religious-accommodation process works:
1. Employees must show they have a bona fide belief that complying with an employer’s job requirement is contrary to their religion. Example: a requirement that all employees be clean-shaven or wear no head coverings when one’s religion requires wearing facial hair or a headscarf.
2. Employees then must tell their employer about the conflict.
3. Employers then must show either that they offered a reasonable accommodation (such as exempting employees from dress or grooming requirements) or that providing the exemption created an undue hardship. Example: an employer might conclude that allowing an employee to take every Sunday off to worship isn’t feasible.
Recent case: Juan Valdes, who is a Muslim, accepted a spot in a training course to prepare him to work as a correctional officer for the state of New Jersey. The military-style training included grooming standards, including a requirement to be clean-shaven.
Valdes said he couldn’t completely shave his beard because his religion prohibited it. His supervisors then compromised and allowed him to retain a beard no longer than 1/8 inch in length. The parties signed an agreement spelling out the requirement.
However, Valdes came to the training program with a longer beard than had been agreed upon and program supervisors disciplined him several times. Finally, they discharged Valdes. He sued, alleging the program had not reasonably accommodated his right to practice his religion.
The court disagreed. The accommodation he received might not have been exactly what he wanted, but it was what he had agreed to. The agreement Valdes signed meant the accommodation was fine. (Valdes v. State of New Jersey, No. 05-3510, DC NJ, 2007)