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Religious Discrimination and Accommodation in the Workplace

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace. This means that covered employers must refrain from making employment decisions based on religion. In addition, employers cannot force employees to participate in a religious activity as a condition of employment. Finally, covered employers must also provide certain accommodations for sincerely held religious beliefs, unless an accommodation would impose an undue hardship on business operations.

When an employee requests an accommodation due to a sincerely held religious belief, more information may be needed from the employee. In that case, the employer and employee should engage in an interactive process to discuss the request. If the request does not pose an undue hardship, the employer should grant the employee’s request. Employer’s should be aware, however, courts have established high burdens to establish “undue hardship,” routinely holding the mere fact an employer does not necessarily agree with or understand the employee’s “religion” or finds the requested accommodation to be inconvenient, insincere, or annoying will not establish undue burden.

The prohibition on discrimination and the requirement of reasonable accommodation apply whether the religious views in question are mainstream, non-traditional, and even if they are not recognized by any organized religion. Protections also extend to those who profess no religious beliefs – for example, they extend to atheists.

Such issues often arise in the context of dress and grooming codes in the workplace. Unless it would be an undue hardship, employers must accommodate dress or grooming practices that an employee has for religious reasons. These might include an individual wearing a head covering, wearing certain hairstyles, not shaving facial hair and not being required to wear certain types of clothing or uniforms, like miniskirts and pants.

Concrete examples of these types of issues can be observed through recent litigation in this area of the law. In 2008, the EEOC filed a complaint against the Grand Central Partnership in Manhattan on behalf of four security guards who failed to tuck in their dreadlocks under their uniform hats. The employees were Rastafarian, and the Rastafarian philosophy places symbolic meaning on wearing one’s hair in long dreadlocks. The company quickly settled the litigation after agreeing to provide custom-made hats to each of the security guards so they could tuck in their dreadlocks.

Another example involved a group of Muslim and Sikh bus and subway drivers who were prohibited from wearing headscarves and turbans. The suit alleged that other workers were allowed to wear non-religious head coverings including baseball caps. Another complaint involving a Sikh paramedic alleged that his employer insisted that he shave his beard, which he claimed he was required to maintain as a tenant of his faith. In 2009, the U.S. Army granted a Sikh doctor’s request that allowed him to wear a turban and have a beard while serving in the military.

Nationwide, filings with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) involving religious discrimination have risen substantially – to a record high of 3,790 in 2010. Complaints from Muslim employees have risen the fastest in recent years in comparison to any other religious group.

Although an employer must attempt to accommodate religious requests, the law does not require employers to accommodate employees who bring frivolous claims. For example, the court threw out Brown v. Pena after the plaintiff claimed he was subjected to discrimination because of his “religious” belief that Kozy Kitten Cat Food contributed to his state of well-being and job performance. There, the court held that the plaintiff’s belief in pet food was not a religion.

The take-away for employers? If an employee requests an accommodation based on a sincerely-held religious belief, employers should be accommodating as long as those requests do not impose an undue burden on the employer. Employers should remember to participate in the interactive process that Title VII encourages when trying to work out an accommodation for an employee’s religious beliefs. During these discussions, the employer should remember to ask the employee to provide his or her proposed accommodation and thoroughly document the conversations. This is especially important if the employer concludes that the employee’s requested accommodation is unreasonable and/or would place an undue burden on the employer since this information will in the future be crucial to defending any potential religious discrimination claims.