From the courtroom: Religious accommodation do’s and don’ts

Let these recent course cases serve as a reminder on how to handle religious accommodation in your workplace.

DO Tell supervisors that all religious accommodation requests must go through HR for review.

In an expensive reminder of what not to do, a Florida jury has ordered a $22 million payday for a hotel employee whose request for religious accommodation was honored for six years, and then suddenly revoked.

Recent case: Marie worked as a dishwasher at the Conrad Miami Hotel. She is a member of the Soldiers of Christ Church, a missionary group.

In 2009, the hotel tried to scheduled her to work on Sundays. However, she threatened to quit, saying she needed Sundays off for religious reasons. The hotel accommodated her request for the next six years.

By late 2015, the kitchen manager told her she had to start working Sundays. To avoid doing so, she managed to switch shifts with co-workers until early in 2016.

Then that strategy failed, and Marie was written up for unexcused absences and other alleged misconduct. Then the hotel fired her.

She sued, alleging interference with her right to a reasonable religious accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The hotel tried to argue it never knew exactly why she needed Sundays off.

The jury concluded Marie had been fired for objecting to the hotel’s removal of its informal accommodation. The jury said she was due $35,000 in back pay, another $500,000 for emotional pain and suffering—and $21.5 million in punitive damages.

The hotel is expected to request a reduction in the award, and to appeal the decision. (Pierre v. Park Hotels, SD FL 2019)

Note: If a supervisor approves an informal religious accommodation and you later revoke it, you had better have rock-solid business reasons for the move. It’s hard to persuade a judge or jury that a religious accommodation is unreasonable if you’ve been providing it for a long time without any apparent problems.

Don’t refuse accommodation without showing exactly how it would be an undue burden

Package delivery giant UPS has agreed to settle a long-running religious discrimination suit filed by the EEOC that alleged the company’s grooming rules discriminated against applicants and employees who wear beards to conform with their religious beliefs.

A class of applicants and employees will share in a settlement worth $4.9 million. The settlement was announced Dec. 23.

The EEOC began receiving complaints in 2005. They claimed the UPS dress and grooming code prohibited employees who interact with customers from having beards or hair longer than collar length. The EEOC alleged the policy discriminated against several religious groups, including Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Orthodox Jews, Rastafarians and Sikhs.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations of an employee’s religious beliefs if doing so does not cause an undue burden for the employer.

In a suit filed in 2015, the EEOC alleged that UPS managers rejected bearded applicants out of hand, without ever exploring possible accommodations. Ultimately, UPS agreed to settle the lawsuit, although it refused to admit any wrongdoing and said in a statement that it disagreed with the EEOC’s position. A consent decree requires UPS to train supervisors about religious accommodation.

Lessons learned: Dress codes must allow for religious exceptions if accommodation is reasonable. Employers must have a process for individually evaluating religious accommodation claims.

Do carefully consider an employee’s religious objection on a case-by-case basis

Employers in the health care and food services industries often want to make sure their employees get common immunizations such as the seasonal influenza vaccination. The idea, of course, is that employees who get a flu shot are less likely to come down with the flu and consequently less likely to spread that illness to vulnerable patients or customers.

Plus, employees who don’t get the flu won’t need as much sick leave and won’t incur medical expenses for flu treatment.

But employers must reasonably accommodate employees whose sincerely held religious beliefs prohibit immunization.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for those workers unless doing so would result in an undue hardship for the employer. Before a worker can claim protection, she has to let her employer know that she holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement like getting a flu shot. She can’t just refuse and sue after she’s disciplined.

Recent case: Niaja worked for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for 15 years. Beginning in 2012, the hospital began requiring all employees to receive an annual flu vaccine to protect patients from seasonal influenza.

Niaja filled out a questionnaire the hospital circulated, indicating she didn’t want to get the shot. She told a manager that she didn’t understand why she had to get the shot when in the past she had “proven to remain healthy due to her African Holistic Health lifestyle.”

When asked a few weeks later whether she had received her shot, she said she had not. The hospital fired her. Niaja sued, alleging religious discrimination.

But the court tossed out her lawsuit. It reasoned that Niaja had never raised a religious objection or claimed a sincerely held religious belief. Her claim that her lifestyle prevented illness wasn’t enough. (Brown v. Children’s Hospital, ED PA, 2018)

Final note: Don’t let this case give you a false sense of security. In fact, both the EEOC and the Department of Justice have identified accommodating religious beliefs and practices in the workplace as enforcement priorities.

The EEOC, in particular, has been aggressively filing lawsuits on behalf of workers in the health care industry who oppose vaccination on the basis of their religious beliefs. For example, the agency sued a health care provider back in September, alleging it failed to exempt a support worker from flu shots even though it had accommodated him in the past by allowing him to wear a face mask. This is one of a half-dozen cases the EEOC has filed or settled in the past three years involving immunizations and religion.