Employees are entitled to reasonable accommodations for their religious needs, which can include time off to attend religious services. The key is reasonable.
If you can document that, under the circumstances, a request is unreasonable, you don’t have to make the accommodation.
Recent case: Linda is a Jehovah’s Witness. She worked for the North Carolina Human Relations Commission, greeting visitors and preparing documents. Over the years, she regularly used her vacation time to attend Jehovah’s Witnesses conventions in different states with her family members. Most of the time, her leave requests were approved without incident.
Then, while the office was in the middle of relocation, she requested vacation leave in order to attend yet another conference. Her request was denied this time.
She sued, alleging religious discrimination. She claimed that other employees were allowed to take leave during the relocation. She reasoned that she had been singled out because she wanted to be away for religious purposes.
The Human Relations Commission was ready. It showed the court exactly why it deemed her request unreasonable. While other employees were allowed to take leave, they had asked for the time off long before Linda made her request—and before the commission knew the exact dates for the move.
The court said those were legitimate explanations for the decision and showed that Linda hadn’t been targeted because she wanted the time off for a religious event. (Huggins v. NC Department of Administration, et al., No. 5:10-CV-414, ED NC, 2013)
Final note: Some workers think they’re automatically entitled to religious holidays off. That’s not true. For example, employers don’t have to hire extra workers just to let some have regular worship time off. You should, however, let employees swap schedules or otherwise accommodate each other if that’s practical.