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Employees get benefit of doubt on religious accommodation

by on
in Employment Law,Human Resources

Employees are entitled to reasonable accommodation of their “sincerely held” religious beliefs. Employers face an uphill battle if they want to deny such requests because they doubt the sincerity of their employees’ beliefs. That’s because there’s very little employers can do to get such cases tossed out before they go to trial. End result? Lots of lost time—and lots of attorneys’ fees.

As the following case shows, when it comes to religious beliefs, the employee gets the benefit of the doubt.

Recent case: John Watts was a student in Florida International University’s Master of Social Work program and had to do an internship to graduate. He counseled patients at a state-run psychiatric institution and recommended to a Catholic patient that she look for a bereavement group at church. He was terminated, ostensibly because he recommended she attend church.

Watts sued, alleging the university and the psychiatric institution both interfered with his right to freedom of religious expression. A lower court tossed out the case, but the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated it. The appeals court said cases alleging interference with religious expression will not be dismissed early on in the litigation process, but will go to trial if the person suing alleges interference with a sincerely held religious belief. (Watts v. Florida International University, No. 05-13852, 11th Cir., 2007)

Note: This case involved a state agency, but the concepts apply to all kinds of employers. All an employee has to assert to get to trial is that “he or she holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement” and needs accommodation.

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