Religious accommodations in Florida workplaces: 5 steps to take
Florida mirrors America’s growing diversity in many ways. Today, coworkers wear burqas and yarmulkes, and some employees request prayer breaks.
Religious diversity is a reason for celebration, but it also presents workplace challenges. Religious discrimination claims filed with the EEOC more than doubled in the past year.
The courts have not offered clear guidance to employers when dealing with religious issues. And Congress will likely consider legislation again this year that would require employers to make ADA-style reasonable accommodations for employees’ religious practices.
Most employers understand the basics: Federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act) says it’s illegal to discriminate based on a person’s religion in hiring, firing, promotion, pay, benefits and other work conditions. The law covers employers of 15 or more people.
Guidelines for compliance
To comply with Title VII, follow these guidelines:
- Beware of less-obvious bias. For example, you can’t refuse to assign favorable shifts to certain employees because you fear their religious needs will cause absence problems.
- Don’t push any one religion. Employers can’t force employees to participate in religious activities as a condition of employment. Conversely, they can’t punish employees for participating in religious activities.
- Don’t limit religious expression. Permit employees to engage in religious expression unless it imposes undue hardship on your organization.
- Prevent harassment. You must take steps to prevent religious harassment of employees and stop it when you learn it has occurred.
- Accommodate “sincere” beliefs. Employers must accommodate employees’ “sincerely held” religious beliefs or practices unless they create an undue hardship.
Accommodation examples: changing an employee’s schedule to allow him or her to attend a religious service; allowing voluntary schedule swaps with co-workers; and modifying such workplace rules as dress or grooming requirements. The EEOC has sued United Parcel Service for refusing to hire a Rastafarian because of his beard, which he wore for religious reasons.
While the law says you must accommodate sincerely held beliefs, the EEOC doesn’t require employees to actually be card-carrying members of a religion to hold sincere beliefs of that religion (and earn protection under the law). So don’t try to analyze whether an employee’s belief is sincere or not; when in doubt, accommodate.
For more advice on complying with religious-accommodation law, check out these sites:
- EEOC: www.eeoc.gov/types/religion.html
- Justice Department: www.usdoj.gov/crt/religdisc/religdisc.html
- Employment Law Information Network: www.elinfonet.com/fedindex/18
Case study: Religion comment at firing leads to litigation
Douglas Carter was a devout Seventh-day Adventist who worked for the Diamondback Golf Club near Tampa. For years, the club accommodated Carter’s religious needs with a flexible schedule that allowed him to attend church meetings and go on annual retreats. He asked that co-workers not tell dirty jokes around him, and that he be excused from the company Christmas party. The club and his co-workers largely agreed to the requests.
But Carter’s boss and co-workers had some issues with him: They said he seemed a little too greedy when it came to tips from club patrons and could get “huffy” when criticized. In early 2002, irate co-workers visited Carter’s boss at his home to complain that Carter was micromanaging some of the staff. Carter’s boss agreed that something had to be done.
On March 1, 2002, he called Carter in and told him he was being terminated. According to Carter, he also said that Carter “had to find another place to work conducive to religion.” Although Carter’s boss denies saying this, it became the basis for future litigation.
Carter sued, alleging religious discrimination played at least a part in his termination. “Mixed-motive” discrimination cases have been brought since the U.S. Supreme Court OK’d them in Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa, 539 US 90 (2003). Employees can win mixed-motive lawsuits if they can prove that illegal discrimination played any part in the decision to terminate them.
Using the alleged statement about religion as evidence, Carter got a trial. The jury ruled that religion was a factor in Carter’s firing, but did not award any damages because it believed the employer would have fired Carter anyway, even if he were of a different religion.
Carter then sued in an attempt to recover over $200,000 in legal fees (Note: The employer’s legal fees were probably at least that high.). The court denied the motion. (Carter v. Diamondback Golf Club, Inc., 8:03-CV-327-T-27MAP, MD FL, 2006)
Practical steps for employers: This case shows how leaving an employee just a small opening can lead to expensive litigation. Employers should consider having a third person present during disciplinary or firing meetings. Consider videotaping or audiotaping these sessions, but always get the employee’s permission before doing so. Many states have wiretap laws that restrict audiotaping someone without his or her permission.