Employment LawScene Alert: Religious Accommodations and Your Workplace

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are required to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs. Two recent cases demonstrate the importance of recognizing when religious accommodations might be necessary.

In March 2014, the EEOC published guidance on religious garb and grooming in the workplace. The guidance states that an employee does not have to use “magic words” to request an accommodation and that a request for a religious accommodation may not even be necessary when the religious practice is “obvious.” Of course, the EEOC’s guidance is only guidance and does not have the force of law.

Whether notification to the employer and a specific request is necessary to succeed on a Title VII religious discrimination case will be decided by the United States Supreme Court in the coming year when it hears the case EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch. The case stems from a Muslim applicant who was not given a job at the retailer, allegedly because she wore a headscarf to her interview that conflicted with the store’s dress code, which prohibited headgear. The case was dismissed because the Tenth Circuit found that forcing employers to infer that an accommodation was necessary was too burdensome and that a request for accommodation from the employee is necessary before the employer is required to act on it. The Supreme Court will determine whether that is the correct standard for religious discrimination. Until a final decision is made, employers should be aware of the potential need for a religious accommodation even if the employee does not request it because the EEOC is likely to support employees who bring these kinds of claims.

Another recent example is the January 15, 2015 jury verdict out of a West Virginia federal court. In EEOC v. CONSOL Energy, Inc. and Consolidated Coal Company, the jury determined that the employer had violated Title VII by failing to accommodate a mine worker’s religious objection to using a biometric hand-scanning system that tracked employee time. The employee claimed that he had a sincerely-held religious belief that the hand-scanning system was connected to the “mark of the beast” and the Antichrist and retired instead of using the device. Although the employer offered to let the employee use his left hand with his palm up, the jury determined that it was not a reasonable accommodation.

Employers need to be aware of the need to discuss accommodations for sincerely-held religious beliefs with their employees and their applicants when those issues arise.

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