Freedom of Religion in the Workplace: Finding Accommodations That Work

Religious accommodation can be a minefield, but the law is clear. According to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, employers must provide reasonable accommodation of their employees’ religious beliefs. At a recent American Bar Association (ABA) Labor and Employment Law Conference, panelists discussed the issue, with these suggestions for how to assure that employees are free to meet their religious obligations without disrupting the workplace.

Focus on sincerity, not validity.

We’ve all heard recently of incidents in which wedding vendors refuse service to same-sex couples or pharmacists refuse to dispense birth control based on religious beliefs. Other scenarios are less familiar. The Sikh religion, for example, requires its adherents to wear a kirpan — an article of faith that resembles a knife or sword — under the clothing to symbolize a willingness to defend the oppressed. How does a workplace with a no weapons policy respond?

The key, per the ABA panel, is to determine whether the belief is “sincerely held.” Employers have the right to ask employees to demonstrate that a belief is sincere if the timing seems suspicious or if the employee has behaved in ways inconsistent with the stated belief. This does not mean questioning the validity of a belief or of the religion itself, only that the employee is a sincere believer and practitioner of the faith.

Do not base accommodation on verification.

While employers can request written verification that the employee sincerely holds a certain belief, accommodation cannot be contingent on verification from a third party. While the request itself does not violate Title VII, a requirement that the verification be from a certain source puts the employer at risk of a denial of accommodation claim. Before denying a claim, consider whether you can get the information you need for an informed decision by simply interacting with the employee.

Take a case-by-case approach.

The panel noted that standards on religious dress and grooming must take into account the individual employee’s situation. For example, a workplace may generally accommodate an employee taking time for prayer, but if the employees work in a factory on an assembly line, taking the same time off could bring business to a halt. The employer can require that prayer time be during a break or off-the-clock.

A similar complication comes from employees whose faith requires them to solicit belief or participation from coworkers. If such solicitation is unwelcome, however, coworkers may feel pressured. Employers do not violate Title VII by clarifying that proselytizing in the workplace can be considered harassment, especially if coworkers express discomfort. After such a conversation, an employee who persists in pressuring coworkers can be disciplined or even fired.

Sometimes religious accommodation is as simple as excusing an employee from a certain event or job duty that conflicts with their beliefs. Be open to finding ways to work with employees of various religions, even if you are unfamiliar with the belief. If you have any questions or concerns about reasonable accommodation, we’re happy to help.


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