I am the HR Manager in a medium-sized nonprofit of about 30 employees. We are a social services organization, and among other things, we actively participate in food distribution to people in need around the holidays.
Recently, one of our newly hired employees advised us that they have an objection to participating in these activities because their religion forbids it, and they requested an accommodation not to participate in this distribution. It should be noted that this distribution is part of the employee’s duties found in the job description.
We have become very familiar with the need to accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs of an employee in the context of our mandatory Covid-19 vaccination policy but are at a loss, outside of the vaccine context, regarding how to handle this kind of accommodation request, having never before received one.
Could you give some idea how to evaluate this request?
While many employers first became aware of the need to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs when facing objections to a vaccine requirement, the need to evaluate an employee’s request for a religious accommodation and the need, if there is no undue hardship in doing so, to provide such accommodations has been an important part of employee workplace rights for many years.
To start with the basics, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act makes discrimination on the basis of religion unlawful. Under Title VII, an employer is prohibited from discriminating because of religion in the hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or other “terms, conditions, or privileges” of employment. Title VII also requires the employer to accommodate the employee in practicing their sincerely held religious beliefs unless doing so creates an “undue hardship.” The standard under Title VII for determining whether an accommodation presents an undue hardship is different from the standard for evaluating such hardships under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the standard for determining the undue hardship under Title VII is whether the burden or cost would be more than a “de minimis”—that is, nominal—amount.
Many situations involve an employee’s right to be relieved of certain dress or grooming standards, where those compromise religious beliefs, and to be allowed to adjust their work schedule as needed to attend religious services and observations.
In addition, there are several well-publicized examples of employees asking for accommodations to be relieved of job responsibilities that compromise their religious beliefs. Here are a few examples:
- Nurses with religious objections to being involved in abortions
- Pacifist postal workers with objections to processing draft registration forms
- A Jehovah’s Witness employee who had religious objections to raising a flag
- A vegetarian employee who refused to hand out hamburger coupons as part of an agency’s promotional program
When an employee makes a request to be relieved from work duties or rules because of a religious belief, if the employee can be accommodated in a way that enables the job to be done without imposing a substantial burden on the employer, coworkers, and/or customers, Title VII requires the employer to provide that accommodation.
In your situation, it is important to engage in an interactive process with this employee to ascertain the nature of the beliefs that have led to this request for accommodation, the sincerity of those beliefs, and whether any other accommodations might allow the employee to carry out the job duties without compromising any sincerely held religious beliefs.
In this interaction, it is important to be open-minded and nonjudgmental, and to avoid using one’s own religious as a comparison or standard against which to evaluate the accommodation request. Each request and its resolution must be taken on its own merits and facts. As an example, don’t assume that an employee who is asking for Fridays off for observance of religious beliefs just wants to have a long weekend.
Also remember that the “religious beliefs” to be protected and accommodated are not limited to specific religions. The EEOC has noted that Vegetarianism, Wicca, and many other beliefs are protected by Title VII, even if the employee is one of only a few followers of the religion.
The nature of a “religious belief” has been explained by the EEOC, citing text from Title VII:
Religious beliefs include theistic beliefs (i.e. those that include a belief in God) as well as non-theistic “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” Although courts generally resolve doubts about particular beliefs in favor of finding that they are religious, beliefs are not protected merely because they are strongly held. Rather, religion typically concerns “ultimate ideas” about “life, purpose, and death.” Social, political, or economic philosophies, as well as mere personal preferences are not “religious” beliefs protected by Title VII.
As part of this interactive process, the sincerity of an employee’s beliefs can be explored if there is a good faith reason to doubt the beliefs are sincere. As the EEOC guidance on this issue points out:
Because the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, observances, and practices with which the employer may be unfamiliar, the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief. If, however, an employee requests religious accommodation, and an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, observance, or practice, the employer would be justified in seeking additional supporting information.
For further information on how the EEOC looks at this subject, see Section 12: Religious Discrimination.
An employee with sincerely held religious beliefs, as broadly defined, is protected by Title VII from any discrimination on the basis of those beliefs. Employers have an obligation to accommodate such beliefs, which also can affect an employee’s duties and obligations in the workplace, unless an undue hardship were to follow for the employer as a result of providing this accommodation. The best way to evaluate such a request is to assume that the beliefs are religious and sincerely held (check Section 12:2. Sincerely Held and 12:3. Employer Inquiries into Religious Nature or Sincerity of Belief for questions about determining sincerity), to talk to your employee with an open mind, and to proactively look for ways to provide an accommodation rather than to suppose that an undue hardship will be the inevitable consequence of the granting such accommodation.
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Mike Bishop is a member of the State Bar of California and has been admitted to practice in a number of federal district courts in both California and Ohio. During his legal career, Mike worked for 32 years with a Sacramento law firm, where he focused on employment litigation in both state and federal courts. During that time, he defended employers in litigation. In 2016, he began his work as an Employment Risk Manager for the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance, assisting nonprofits in evaluating employment risks. Mike lives in Lakewood, Ohio, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with a bachelor’s degree in political science, and a 1982 graduate of the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law.
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