It’s up to the employee to explain religious objections

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in Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources

Good news for employers: You aren’t required to be religiously clairvoyant when it comes to accommodating religious beliefs.

Although Title VII says employers must reasonably accommodate religious beliefs that conflict with job requirements, it is the employee who is responsible for explaining exactly how her religion conflicts with some aspect of the job. Even common religious expressions—like wearing a cross or the Star of David—don’t trigger a need to discuss religious accommodations. After all, employers don’t necessarily know what each religion requires.

Recent case: Jessica Wilkerson sued New Media Technology Charter School after it declined to renew her teaching contract. She claimed that the school refused to accommodate her religious beliefs and then punished her for complaining.

At the heart of her complaint was a ceremony she said the school made her attend, which included “libations” and supposed “ancestor worship.” (Her complaint never specified what libations were or how the ceremony amounted to ancestor worship, but the court took her word for it during the early stages of the legal process.) She claimed she should have been excused, but wasn’t. However, she never told her supervisors that the ceremony conflicted with her religious beliefs. Instead, she said that they should have known the ceremony was offensive since they knew she was a Christian.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. It said Wilkerson had an obligation to tell her supervisors about her particular religious beliefs. Only then was the school required to consider accommodations. (Wilkerson v. New Media Technology Charter School, No. 07-1305, 3rd Cir., 2008)

Final note: Oddly enough, the court did allow Wilkerson’s retaliation claim to go forward. It said that more discovery was needed to see if she believed, in good faith, that the “libations ceremony” amounted to ancestor worship and whether she was not rehired because she complained. Unfortunately, that means the charter school will have to spend more time and money on legal fees. The court did order the lower court to expedite the process and limit the potential cost.

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