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Unless there’s discipline, it’s not religious discrimination

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Employees whose employers turn down requests for time off to attend religious services can’t just run out and sue for religious discrimination. They have a case only if their employers discipline or discharge them for refusing to comply with the work requirements—for example, by skipping work to attend services.

Bottom line: If you have a good business reason to turn down the request, do so. Make sure to document the undue hardship that you believe the accommodation might cause. An example: If you operate under a collective bargaining agreement that limits the number of weekend shifts employees may work, accommodating one employee could compromise your overall work schedule. That might be an undue hardship.

If the employee is able to take the time off using vacation or personal time, he probably doesn’t have a case. And if he keeps coming to work, there isn’t much to worry about.

Recent case: Martin Tepper was a letter carrier in Chagrin Falls, OH. As a Messianic Jew, he celebrated the Sabbath each Saturday and observed other Jewish holidays. Between 1992 and 2003, the U.S. Postal Service accommodated Tepper’s religious requests. Then reduced staffing levels made it hard to grant Tepper’s days off, so the post office told him he had to either use annual leave and unpaid personal time or exchange schedules with other carriers.

He did, but he also sued. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed his case. To prove a case of religious discrimination, Tepper had to show (1) he had a bona fide religious belief that conflicted with an employment requirement; (2) he told his employer about that belief; and (3) he was discharged or disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting employment requirement.

The appeals court reasoned lost pay by taking unpaid personal time wasn’t discipline and didn’t amount to punishment for exercising his religion. (Tepper v. Potter, No. 06-4182, 6th Cir., 2007)

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