Understanding religious accommodation in Illinois workplaces

Illinois mirrors America’s growing diversity in many ways. Today, mosques occupy old churches; co-workers wear burqas and yarmulkes; and some employees request “prayer breaks.”

Religious diversity is a reason for celebration, but it also presents challenges in the workplace. The number of religious-discrimination claims filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has more than doubled in the past year.

Furthermore, the courts have not offered clear guidance to employers when dealing with religious issues. And Congress will likely be considering legislation again this year that would require employers to make ADA-style reasonable accommodations for employees’ religious practices.

5 steps to compliance 

Most employers understand the basics: Federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act) says that 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.

To comply with the federal law, follow these guidelines:

1. Beware less-obvious bias. For example, you can’t refuse to assign a certain employee to a favorable shift because you fear his or her religious needs will cause an absence problem.

2. Don’t push any one religion. Employers can’t force employees to participate in a religious activity as a condition of employment. Conversely, they can’t punish employees for participation in a religious activity.

3. Don’t limit religious expression. Permit employees to engage in religious expression unless it would impose an undue hardship on your organization.

4. 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; modifying workplace rules, such as dress or grooming requirements.

The EEOC this year sued UPS for refusing to hire a Rastafarian as a driver because of his beard, which he wore for religious reasons.

One point: 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.

5. Prevent harassment. You must take steps to prevent religious harassment of employees and stop it when you become aware it has occurred.

Online resources

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 statement at termination leads to litigation

Yolanda Hill suffered from epilepsy and other health problems. Her employer, a health care provider, accommodated her medical needs by shifting her to different jobs. Ultimately, she found a job as a patient transporter.

Hill belonged to the Children of the Light Church, which practices Orthodox Judaism. As a result, she observed her Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Even though her employer accommodated her disability, it balked when it came to accommodating her religious needs. All employees in her position were required to work some weekend duty.

She offered to work Sunday through Thursday, and to work any other weekend period as long as it did not conflict with her Sabbath. Her supervisor refused to change her schedule. When scheduled to work on the Sabbath, she called in sick. Her supervisor called her in to discuss her absenteeism. She reiterated her request for religious accommodation. Her boss refused, saying accommodating her would violate a collective-bargaining agreement.

She filed suit under Title VII and the ADA (over issues related to her epilepsy). When the employer moved to have the case dismissed, the court refused. It noted that nothing in the collective-bargaining agreement prevented the employer from accommodating her. In fact, the court pointed to her willingness to work an alternative schedule as proof she could easily be accommodated without harming the employer.

Practical steps for employers: Employers should view religious accommodation the same way they view disability accommodation. It is an interactive process where both parties work to find a reasonable result. Like disability accommodation, the employer ultimately decides what is reasonable, and the accommodation may not always be the one the employee requested.