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Religion accommodation not protected … yet

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

In a case likely to be appealed, the EEOC has lost a bid to have federal courts within the 8th Circuit consider request for religious accommodation to be protected activity.

The stakes are high, since a determination that asking for accommodations was protected would turn any negative consequence afterward into grounds for a federal lawsuit.

Recent case: Emily is a registered nurse and a Seventh Day Adventist. Her regular worship day is Friday. She was invited to apply for a special nursing program at North Memorial Health. Called the Advanced Beginner Program, it gave inexperienced nurses a way to quickly pick up sophisticated skills.

Emily interviewed and received a conditional offer of employment with a start date. The job required working every other weekend. She then called HR and told them she would need a religious accommodation of Fridays off.

North Memorial Health revoked Emily’s offer, and she complained to the EEOC.

The EEOC filed suit on Emily’s behalf, arguing that she had been retaliated against for engaging in protected activity—that is, punished for asking for an accommodation of her religious practices.

The court hearing the suit case said it faced a question no federal court in the 8th Circuit had ever answered: whether merely asking for a religious accommodation is protected activity. It concluded that it was not. Because Emily had not raised denial of the accommodation as grounds for the lawsuit, it threw out the EEOC’s case. (EEOC v. North Memorial Health, DC MN, 2017)

Final note: This case could have long tentacles. Expect more employees to specifically complain to HR about a denied religious accommodation or even to include a statement in the accommodation request stating that they believe denying the requested accommodation violates Title VII’s religious discrimination provisions.

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