What Is a Religious Accommodation Under Title VII?

January 21, 2023・7 mins read
What Is a Religious Accommodation Under Title VII?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids workplace discrimination that is based on a number of legally protected characteristics. One of those characteristics is religion. The federal law requires that employers reasonably accommodate an applicant’s or an employee’s sincerely held religious belief unless the accommodation would pose an undue hardship.

How does Title VII of the Civil Rights Act define religion?

Religion is defined quite broadly under Title VII. According to guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), religion includes traditional religions such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity as well as “religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others.” The only real requirement is that the belief must be “sincerely held.”

How do you determine a sincerely held belief?

Whether the belief is sincerely held is generally presumed, according to EEOC guidance. However, there are several factors that could affect an employee’s credibility, such as:

  • The worker’s behavior. Has the worker behaved in a manner that is not inconsistent with their expressed religious beliefs?
  • Whether the accommodation the employee is seeking is particularly desirable and likely to be asked for because of non-religious reasons
  • Is the timing of the requested accommodation suspect? Did request for the accommodation on a religious ground follow an earlier request by the worker for the same benefit for a non-religious reason?
  • Does the employer have reason to believe that the requested accommodation is being sought for non-religious reasons?

No one factor counts more than another in making the determination.

Strict adherence to observances is not necessary

The EEOC also mentions that strict adherence to rituals and observances that are commonly a part of a religion aren’t necessary. The federal agency notes that an individual’s beliefs and observance of their religious beliefs might change over time. In addition, an individual might forego religious practices because of a fear of workplace discrimination. Also, some job applicants might forego sincerely held religious practices during the application process because of bias. However, a worker’s lack of observance or adherence to religious practices can’t entirely be discounted. Evidence showing that an employee acted in a way that was not consistent with their expressed religious belief is relevant in evaluating the sincerity of the religious belief, the EEOC says.

Should an employer ask about the employee’s religion or sincerely held belief?

No. Employers should assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, the EEOC says. However, employers can ask for more information in certain narrow circumstances. This may be the case if an employee requests a religious accommodation and the employer has an objective basis for questioning the:

  1. Sincerity of the religious belief, or
  2. Questioning the religious nature of the observance.

In such instances, the employer can ask for supporting information.

What are examples of religious accommodations?

Religious accommodations can take many forms. Accommodations can include:

  • Granting a flexible schedule
  • A shift substitution
  • A job reassignment
  • An exemption from the employer’s dress code. The EEOC successfully sued Abercrombie and Fitch in 2013 after the clothing company refused to let a female Muslim employee cover her hair. The retailer said her request violated their “look,” according to the EEOC.
  • An exemption to a mandatory flu or COVID-19 vaccination shot

Employees are not entitled to their preferred accommodation

Employers don’t have to grant workers the accommodation they want. Employers have prevailed in several court cases when the reasonable accommodation they offered was rejected by the employee. A federal appeals court ruled in 2018 that a truck driver who requested Sundays off as a religious accommodation was not entitled to the accommodation of his choice. The employer offered reassignment to a route that didn’t require Sunday work but paid less. The worker took the employer to court over the loss of income. The court said the employer’s offer was a reasonable accommodation. Another court case also dealt with a worker’s unhappiness when the employer’s accommodation led to lesser pay. The federal appeals court ruled that, even though the worker was not given the accommodation he wanted, he was given a reasonable accommodation. The worker was allowed to skip mandatory weekend work altogether. To accommodate his religious beliefs, the worker asked that his mandatory overtime be switched from Saturday to Sunday. The employee sued the employer because he was unhappy about the loss of pay presented by the accommodation.

Employers can’t force workers to participate in religious observances

Most religious accommodation claims center around an employee’s request for a religious accommodation. However, other types of religious accommodation claims do occur. Covered employers are not allowed to coerce employees to engage in religious practices, according to the EEOC. Employers cannot force employees to participate in a religious activity as a condition of employment. Title VII also forbids employers from taking adverse employment action, such as firing, against those who oppose such practices. In 2018, a jury awarded a little over $5 million to workers whose New York-based employer forced them to participate in prayer and religious workshops. The EEOC sued the employer on the workers’ behalf.  The EEOC said the company created a hostile work environment for the workers and unlawfully fired one of them when she opposed the practices.

Undue hardship — an employer exception to compliance

The EEOC explains in guidance on religious discrimination that an accommodation may cause undue hardship if it is:

  • Expensive
  • Negatively impacts workplace safety
  • Reduces workplace efficiency
  • Transgresses on the rights of other workers
  • Requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work

Examples of undue hardship on a business include:

  • A request that violates an employer’s seniority system
  • A request that leads to a lack of necessary staffing
  • Also, a request that jeopardizes security or health
  • A request that costs the employer more than a minimal amount of money to put into place

“Undue hardship” is a high standard for employers to meet, but it’s not an impossible one.

How to handle a request for religious accommodation

Employers should make a case-by-case determination of requested religious accommodations. Employers are expected to engage in a process to find a reasonable accommodation under Title VII that is interactive and undertaken in good faith.

Managers should be trained to handle formal requests for religious accommodation and to listen for clues that suggest a need for accommodation even if there is no explicit request for accommodation.

Managers should be trained to handle formal requests for religious accommodation and to listen for clues that suggest a need for accommodation even if there is no explicit request for accommodation. Employers that don’t have a religious accommodation policy should consider crafting one. Kroger settled a case in 2022 stemming from allegations by 2 Arkansas workers who said the nationwide grocery store chain’s logo of a rainbow over a heart supported LGBTQ politics. They opposed wearing the logo on religious grounds. Kroger denied that the logo had anything to do with LGBTQ people or politics. However, the EEOC took the nationwide grocer to court, claiming discrimination. As part of the settlement, Kroger agreed to create a religious accommodation policy. Compliance training for supervisors and managers is also a good idea, legal experts say. Supervisors and managers, who most often see these kinds of situations, can’t comply with a law if they don’t know the “ins and outs” of the statute.

Knowledge of legal requirements is key for employers

Requests for religious accommodations don’t have to land employers in hot water. Knowledge of the legal requirements and agency guidance, as well as a strong policy and comprehensive training for key employees, can go a long way toward effectively handling such requests.

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