Can’t accommodate religion? Prove hardship

Employees are entitled to reasonable accommodations to practice their religion. If an employee can show that she holds a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with a requirement of her employment and she tells her employer, she cannot be fired or not hired because of that need.

Once the employee shows her need for religious accommodation, the burden shifts to the employer to show that it is unable to accommodate the religious need without undue hardship. And that undue hardship standard can trip up employers. Make sure your explanation holds up to scrutiny.

Recent case: Isabel applied for a position with Dallas County as director of the data management department at the Dallas County Jail. The department processes all paperwork for inmates being booked into or released from jail. As the director, Isabel would be solely and directly responsible for the intake and release of each inmate, which can happen at any time of the day. She was offered the job.

Then she explained that, because of her Orthodox Jewish beliefs, she would need to leave early every Friday in the fall and winter, and that she could not work anytime during the Friday-into-Saturday Sabbath. The county rescinded the job offer.

Isabel sued, alleging failure to accommodate her religious needs.

The county argued that the jail operates 24/7, and that Isabel admitted she was not available on that schedule. It insisted no accommodation was possible because her duties could not be delegated. Isabel countered that she could take phone calls during the Sabbath; therefore, there would be no undue hardship.

The court said a jury will have to decide whether that’s a reasonable accommodation or an undue hardship. (Balderas v. Valdez, ND TX, 2018)

Keep it in mind

THE LAW: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on their religious beliefs.

It also requires employers to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs when doing so does not create an undue burden on the employer. The religious accommodation process is similar to the ADA’s accommodation process. However, employers are not required to determine whether the employee needing the accommodation is capable of performing the job’s essential functions with or without reasonable accommodation. A demonstrable undue burden is the only reason employers may refuse a religious accommodation.

Title VII also prohibits harassment and discrimination based on an employee’s religious beliefs. Employers must investigate harassment and discrimination complaints and take steps to protect employees from future discrimination.

Applicants often raise their need for religious accommodations, such as exemptions from dress or grooming codes or customized work schedules, during job interviews. Hiring managers should know how to handle religious accommodation requests.

Ask questions to clarify exactly what the applicant needs to comply with his or her beliefs. Generally, it’s a bad idea to reject a religious accommodation out of hand. Gather all necessary information. Then either grant the accommodation if similar requests have been agreed to in the past or promise to explore options and get back to the applicant.