Religious Accommodations: What You Need to Know

religious-accommodationsTitle VII of the Civil Rights Act ("Title VII") prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against applicants and employees on the basis of religion. Covered employers must also provide reasonable accommodations for employees' sincerely held religious beliefs or practices, unless it would cause an undue hardship. Many states have similar laws, some of which cover smaller employers. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about religious accommodations:

Q: What types of religious beliefs and practices are protected under Title VII?

A: The protections cover sincerely held religious beliefs (both traditional as well as non-traditional) and religious practices, such as attending religious services, praying, or wearing religious garb.

Q: What is a reasonable accommodation?

A: Generally, a reasonable accommodation is a change in the work environment or in the way work is customarily done that enables an individual to perform the essential functions of the job and enjoy equal employment opportunities. It may also be an exception to certain policies, such as dress codes. The accommodation must effectively eliminate the conflict between the employee's religion and work without causing an undue hardship on the business.

Q: What is considered an undue hardship?

A: To establish undue hardship, an employer must demonstrate that the religious accommodation would require more than de minimis cost. The employer must rely on objective, concrete information to demonstrate how much cost or disruption the employee's proposed accommodation would involve. Factors to be considered are the identifiable cost in relation to the size and operating costs of the employer, and the number of individuals who will in fact need a particular accommodation. Note: If an employee's proposed accommodation would pose an undue hardship, the employer should explore alternative accommodations.

Q: What should I do if an applicant or employee asks for a religious accommodation?

A: Promptly begin an "interactive process," or dialogue, with the employee to identify what, if any, reasonable accommodations should be provided. After implementing an accommodation, periodically check in with the employee to ensure that the accommodation is effective. Remember to document each step of the process.

Q: What are some examples of reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs?

A: Some examples of reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs and practices include, but are not limited to:

  • Exceptions to dress codes
  • Additional breaks for religious practices, such as prayer
  • Paid or unpaid leave for religious observances

Q: If an applicant wears a head scarf to an interview, should I ask her if she is wearing it for religious reasons?

A: No, employers shouldn't ask applicants directly if they are wearing certain attire for religious reasons. However, interviewers should be familiar with the company's dress code (or any other policy that might call for a religious accommodation) and be ready to ask applicants if they can comply, with or without a reasonable accommodation. This question can spark a discussion over possible accommodations, if applicable. Note: If you do ask this question, be consistent and ask it of all applicants.

Q: An employee asked for an exception to our dress code for religious reasons, but I am not sure the employee's religious beliefs are sincere. Are there any guidelines that establish what constitutes a sincerely held religious belief?

A: Generally, employers should assume that an employee's request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief and they should engage in the interactive process. Just because a practice deviates from commonly followed religious beliefs does not make it an insincere belief. However, if you have objective factors that might call into question an employee's sincerity (such as inconsistent behavior, timing of the request, or similar past requests made for secular reasons), seek legal counsel to discuss how to address your concerns.

Q: An employee asked to change shifts because his regular shift would conflict with his religious practices. Do I have to force another employee to swap shifts with the employee who requested the accommodation?

A: An involuntary shift swap isn't generally considered a reasonable accommodation. However, you must make a good faith effort to allow voluntary shift changes. Consider ways you can facilitate and encourage voluntary shift changes among employees with similar qualifications.

Q: During the interview process, should I ask applicants what day they observe the Sabbath so I can handle scheduling accordingly?

A: Avoid questions that tend to elicit information about religious beliefs and practices. If you want to confirm an applicant is able to work the hours required for the job, state the regular days, hours, or shifts and ask whether the candidate can work such a schedule. Be consistent and ask this question of all applicants for the position.

Q: An employee asked for break time for daily prayers. Can I determine when these breaks occur?

A: If the employee's religious beliefs call for prayer at a certain time of day, an accommodation must generally allow the employee to pray at this time, unless it would impose an undue hardship. Remember, the accommodation must be effective in resolving the conflict between the employee's religion and work. During the interactive process, work with the employee to determine what accommodations might be effective.

Q: Some of our workers are required to wear respirators in the workplace for safety reasons. One of these workers has a beard for religious reasons. I'm concerned that his facial hair is negatively impacting the fit of the respirator. Is there a religious exemption from the respirator requirement?

A: Because respirators are generally used to protect workers' life and health under hazardous conditions, OSHA has stated that there are no religious exemptions from respirator requirements. Under certain circumstances, however, bearded workers may be able to use loose-fitting respirators to effectively protect them in the workplace. Consider whether using a loose fitting respirator in your workplace would resolve the conflict between the employee's religion and safety requirements.

Q: Are tattoos and piercings considered religious practices?

A: Some religious practices do involve tattoos and/or piercings, so employers may be required to provide a reasonable accommodation, such as an exception to the dress code, for an employee's body art.

Q: For customers' birthdays, our servers bring them cake and sing "Happy Birthday." One of our servers asked to be excused for religious reasons. Do I have to provide this accommodation?

A: If an employee's religious belief or practice conflicts with a particular task, an appropriate accommodation may include relieving the employee of the task or laterally transferring the employee to a different position or location that eliminates the conflict with the employee's religion. Consider factors such as the nature or importance of the duty, the availability of others to perform the function, and the availability of other positions. In this case, since other servers can perform this function in the employee's absence without affecting service, a reasonable accommodation would likely be to excuse the employee from singing "Happy Birthday."

Conclusion:

Make sure you understand your obligations for providing religious accommodations and train supervisors on how to identify and respond to accommodation requests from employees.

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