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Legal Insider: Religious Accommodation in the Workplace

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Northern Virginia that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement and private sector employee matters.

By Melissa L. Watkins, Esq.

Failing to accommodate an employee based on their religious beliefs can be costly for an employer.

Recently, a hotel dishwasher in Miami was awarded $21.5 million in damages after her employer refused to grant a religious accommodation, requiring that she work on Sundays and eventually terminating her. While the employee will not likely be able to recover this amount due to a cap on punitive damages, the award demonstrates the courts and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) heightened attention to employers’ obligation to adequately respond to employees’ requests for religious accommodations.

Religious Discrimination and Title VII

Title VII of the U.S. Code protects workers from employment discrimination based on their religion. The law forbids discrimination in any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, training, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment. Title VII requires reasonable accommodation of an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, observances, and practices when requested.

The need for religious accommodation most often arises where an individual’s religious beliefs, observances, or practices conflict with a specific task or requirement of the job or application process. Accommodation requests often relate to work schedules, dress, grooming, or religious expression or practice while at work.

The prohibition on religious discrimination and the requirement for reasonable accommodation apply whether an employee’s religious views are mainstream or non-traditional, and even if the views are not recognized by an organized religion. An employer cannot require that an employee provide documentation from an established religious congregation.

Under Title VII, employers are required to accommodate the religious practices of their employees unless a requested accommodation can be shown to be an undue hardship. An accommodation may cause undue hardship if it is costly, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work. However, customer preferences or even the anticipated loss of business are not considered undue hardships.

How Religious Discrimination Claims are Established

In order to establish a claim of discrimination for an employer’s failure to grant a religious accommodation, employees generally need to show that the following:

(1) he or she has a bona fide religious belief, the practice of which conflicted with their employment

(2) he or she informed the agency/employer of this belief and conflict

(3) the agency/employer nevertheless enforced its requirement against the employee

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