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Understanding Religion in the Workplace

ByJustin O. Walker,
business.com writer
|
Mar 05, 2018
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> Business Basics
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Learn about the accommodations your business needs to make.

See what your business needs to do to remain compliant with religious discrimination laws.

Employers have a duty to accommodate employees' religious beliefs, but that doesn't mean you have to bend over backward. In fact, any provisions that will cause "undue hardship" to your business or how you conduct it are not covered under this provision. While you may have certain safety requirements or qualifications that limit the participation of certain religions, you are not required to change your business practice to accommodate an employee as long as there are accommodations you can make instead.

Religion can be a touchy and contentious subject, which is why it's important to know just how far you have to go for employees who need special accommodations. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is in charge of determining whether you're following the directives of the law and determining any infractions.

What is the definition of 'undue hardship'?

Undue hardship means that something would create a financial burden that would be difficult to recoup, or a situation where it would be difficult for the business to continue operating if it were to provide such accommodations. For example, if all Jewish employees ask for Saturdays off and 90 percent of the employees at the company are Jewish, it would be hard for that company to continue operating Saturday hours.

While such a huge percentage is unlikely to happen (except in a business located in a primarily Jewish area, which will then be unlikely to operate on Saturdays anyway), the employer would experience hardship for not being able to open on a Saturday to allow the Jewish employees time off. A situation where one or two employees could reasonably swap that day's shifts with other workers of a different faith, allowing the business to continue as normal for that day, would not constitute a hardship and would be considered a reasonable accommodation.

What are the most common religious accommodations?

The most common accommodations employers encounter are those for time off and religious clothing items. This could be as above, with certain days prohibiting work because of religious observance or religious holidays.

As far as dress code goes, this could mean a man whose religion requires that he not shave his facial hair or a Pentecostal woman not wearing pants or short skirts. This would mean making reasonable adjustments to the dress code, unless doing so made it a hazard for the employee to continue doing their job – for example, the bearded man not being able to wear a breathing mask properly because of his facial hair.

While the employee may request that special equipment be purchased (such as oversized hair nets for employees who do not cut their hair for religious purposes), this comes down to "reasonable accommodation;" if the business is unable to do so, then the employee should be given the choice of forgoing the accommodation due to hardship or taking an alternative assignment that would negate the accommodation. Another common accommodation would be assigning an unused area for the employee to practice religious observances during work hours. 

Where in the law does it say a business must make accommodations?

The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that every individual has a right to practice their own religion. It's a fundamentally protected right. In Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the law prohibits employers from discriminating against or firing employees on religious grounds as well as the provision of reasonable accommodation. It's this specific clause that most businesses are working with when making those.

Another law that is important is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which passed in 1993 in an attempt to create stronger protections in the debate over same-sex marriage and religious discrimination. This act is specific to the government not being allowed to force a person to go against their free exercise of religion. You've undoubtedly heard of the bakery that wouldn't create a wedding cake for a same-sex ceremony. Because doing so would have been against the religion of the person making the cake (since they did not religiously accept such a marriage), the baker had a right to refuse, just as the couple had a right to take their business elsewhere.

While the RFRA does not mention accommodations, it is specific in that if a business were to make such accommodations and thereby infringe on a different employee's right to practice their religion, they would still be culpable in practicing religious discrimination.

How does religious accommodation work?

Employers should have a process in their employment contracts for making such accommodations. There are no specific words or terms that need to be used as long as the employee is making the employer aware of such needs with a conflict of their religious beliefs and their work duties. The request can be written or oral, as long as it creates a discussion between both parties about accommodations.

An employer should be aware of the basic accommodations the employee needs and be willing to discuss additional needs, such as an unused private space for religious observance during the workday so that the practice does not interrupt other employees. If an employee needs such an accommodation, the employer may ask for more information to determine whether the accommodation is reasonable.

The employee may choose to bring supporting evidence during the discussion, but they are not required to prove their necessity besides citing their religious beliefs. Demanding proof would count as discrimination.  

Conclusion

If you are dealing with a situation where an employee feels they're not being given suitable accommodation to practice their freedom of religion, then the best thing to do is consult an employment law attorney. Even if you're not sure there will be any issues, it's important to know that you're doing what you should be and when it's time to say no so that you know you're covered by the law.

Justin O. Walker
Justin O. Walker
See Justin O. Walker's Profile
Justin Walker of Walker Law is a top-tier employment law and business litigation attorney located in downtown San Diego. His knowledge, expertise and commitment to every case are what set Justin apart from the crowd.
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