Employees whose employers turn down their 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 work requirements—for example, skipping work to attend services.
Bottom line: If you have a good business reason to turn down a request, do so. If the employee skips work, you may want to reconsider your decision—especially if the employee seems like the type who might sue you for imposing discipline. But if the employee keeps coming to work, there isn’t much to worry about.
Recent case: Pamela Ellis, who is a member of the Pentecostal faith, worked for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). She asked for a regular night off to attend religious services. Her request was denied and she filed an EEOC complaint.
Rather than fight the matter, the VA allowed her to take the night off. Still, she filed a religious discrimination, “failure-to-accommodate” lawsuit.
The court tossed out the case, concluding she had been neither disciplined nor discharged after the VA denied her request. To prove a case of religious discrimination, she had to show that she:
- Had a bona fide religious belief that conflicted with an employment requirement
- Told her employer about that belief
- Was discharged or disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting employment requirement.
Ellis kept coming to work until the VA changed its mind and accommodated her request—therefore she had no case. (Ellis v. Principi, No. 06-60215, 5th Cir., 2007)
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