Religious discrimination Featured

9:08am EDT September 30, 2002
Most employers are familiar with the laws condemning racial and sexual discrimination in the workplace, which make up the lion's share of employment discrimination claims filed. Employers have implemented policies prohibiting discrimination and established procedures by which complaints are addressed.

Frequently absent from such policies, however, is any mention of the employer's stance on religious discrimination in the workplace.

Just as Title VII protects employees from racial and sexual discrimination, it also protect them from religious discrimination,and requires employers to make reasonable accommodation of their employees' religious practices. Under most interpretations of federal and state law, religion includes all aspects of a religious observance and practice, including beliefs as to what is right and wrong, so long as they are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious belief.

For purposes of antidiscrimination laws, religion is not limited to mainstream or organized religions; instead, it turns on whether religious beliefs are sincerely held. Religious discrimination encompasses either taking adverse employment action against an employee or applicant based upon their religious beliefs and the failure to make accommodations in the workplace for religious beliefs or practices.

This latter definition causes the majority of problems for employers.

Under the law, employers are required to make "reasonable accommodations" for the religious beliefs and practices of their employees and afford them an opportunity to freely adhere to their beliefs. But employers are not obligated to tolerate undue hardship.

The United States Supreme Court has defined "undue hardship" to mean anything that causes more than a minimal cost or disruption to the business. Accommodations not required of an employer are lost efficiency from shifting employees from other departments to cover lost shifts caused by religious practice; increases in wages, including overtime, for working weekend or evening hours; requiring employees without religious conflict to work off hours or overtime; lost productivity due to the loss of a worker with unique skills.

Accommodations found to be minimal, and therefore required, are an employer's obligations to explore voluntary shift trades; allowing workers to use leave time to accommodate religious observances; allowing up to one week of unpaid leave for religious observance; relaxing clothing and grooming rules where such rules only further concerns of professional appearance; and the failure to consider permanent transfer or demotion to accommodate religious observance.

First, an employer should amend an employment policy or create one that accounts for religious discrimination, and establish a system for handling accommodation requests, ensuring a system is in place for fairly and uniformly receiving, reviewing and implementing requests. Designate one person to receive and respond to requests.

All requests should be in writing and identify the general nature of the religious activity and the specifics of the accommodation requested.

Once an employer receives a request, keep the lines of communication open, especially between the employee and the individual who will determine whether the accommodation will be granted.

Establish guidelines informing the manager of the accommodations available and how they may be implemented. Also implement a procedure by which requests, efforts and decisions are documented so the communications between the employer and the employee can't be called into question.

Once the accommodation is granted or denied, follow up with the employee to ensure that the accommodation is satisfactory or that the employee understands the nondiscriminatory basis for the employer's inability to implement an accommodation based upon their religious beliefs.

By taking these simple steps, employers can better protect themselves from claims and liability under federal and state antidiscrimination laws. How to reach: Matt Albers is a litigation attorney with practice experience in employment discrimination at the Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease Cleveland office, (216) 937-3708 or mealbers@vssp.com.