Religious accommodations at work

Gavel to Gavel appears in The Journal Record. This column was originally published in The Journal Record on December 13, 2018.


Janet Hendrick Profile portrait
Janet A. Hendrick

By Phillips Murrah Director Janet A. Hendrick

Disability is the most common and well-known basis for workplace accommodation. Although less common, requests for religious accommodations for an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs or practices, required by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, are on the rise. Here is an overview of what employers should know about religious accommodations.

Under Title VII, “religion” is not limited to traditional, organized religions. Sincerely held religious beliefs are also included, even if not part of a formal church or sect, and even if held by a small number of people. One court found that a belief system known as Onionhead, the motto of which is “peel it-feel it-heal it,” is a religion, looking to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s definition, which includes “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong.” In contrast, another court ruled that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, members of which are known as Pastafarians, is not.

Upon request or notice, an employer must engage in an interactive process with the employee and accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs or practices unless it would pose an undue hardship on the employer. The burden is on the employee to prove notice was provided to the employer. Mere knowledge by the employer does not generally trigger an accommodation obligation.

To establish an undue hardship, an employer must provide specific and credible evidence of the expense or hardship the exception would cause. Hypothetical hardships without support will not suffice. A “slippery slope” argument – that accommodating one employee will encourage others to request a policy exception – rarely succeeds.

Although it is an easier standard to meet than the undue hardship exception to a disability accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, there is no bright-line rule and each case will be different. Examples of burdens that are more than minimal are jeopardizing safety or health, more than a minimal cost, and violating a seniority system.

The two most common religious accommodations are schedule changes and exceptions to dress and grooming codes. Examples are an employee who is unable to work Saturdays because his religion prohibits working on his Sabbath, a female Muslim employee whose religion requires her to wear a hijab, or a male employee who is prohibited by his religion from shaving his beard.

Janet A. Hendrick is an employment attorney who works in Phillips Murrah’s Dallas office.