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Stray comments alone won’t prove religious discrimination

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Employees, aided by new EEOC guidance on religious accommodations (see box, below), are feeling freer to ask for time off to participate in religious worship.

The EEOC guidance makes it clear that employees must make the first move to work toward an accommodation. Title VII bars employers from asking about an applicant/employee’s religion, so the employee must inform the employer if he or she needs a religious accommodation.

Employers don’t have to grant every accommodation request. But, they must be prepared to show that any refusal to accommodate had nothing to do with the employee’s “sincerely held” belief or that providing the accommodation would have placed an undue hardship on the employer.

Stray comments about religion that managers make during the course of the accommodation negotiations probably won’t be enough for the employee to win a religious discrimination suit.

As the following case shows, employees have to develop somewhat thick skins and can’t sue every time a manager suggests, for example, that it’s unreasonable to expect time off every weekend.

Employers can and should balance employee expectations against company needs—which sometimes means the employee can’t be accommodated. Saying so isn’t discrimination.

Recent case: Warren Bowles sued his employer, the New York City Transit Authority, after his boss suggested that if he wanted to have his weekends off for worship, perhaps he should “seek a job in the private sector.”

Bowles said the boss’s comment was tantamount to a discharge threat and constituted a failure to reasonably accommodate his legitimate religious needs.

Not so, concluded the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. The comment was neither an accommodations denial nor an adverse employment action. It dismissed the claim. (Bowles v. New York City Transit Authority, No. 06-3101, 2nd Cir., 2008)

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