Accommodating Employee Religious Practices: A Nuanced Matter
With Hobby Lobby and other prominent cases making religion and the workplace part of the current public discourse, many employment lawyers expect a heightened interested on employees’ and applicants’ parts in claims of religious discrimination in the workplace. As that occurs, employers need to bear in mind some essential legal facts and an important nuance.
Both the federal Civil Rights Act Title VII and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) prohibit employment discrimination based on an employee’s religious beliefs and practices. An employer cannot compel religious practices and under certain circumstances cannot prohibit them. The protections are not limited to the doctrines of organized religions but can include personal spiritual beliefs and atheistic convictions. In essence, the statutes and interpretive case law require employers to permit employees to practice their religious faith during the work day if such practices do not interfere with job requirements or the rights and job performance of co-workers. Designated prayer areas, permitted workspace decorations and dress code variances can all come under the rubric of such accommodations. There can often be some touchy situations requiring careful legal review and guidance.
However, unlike the reasonable accommodation requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the accommodation of employee religious practices are required only so long as the accommodation does not cause more than a “minimal burden” on the operations of the employer’s business. That is, the EEOC’s general standard for determining undue hardship is whether accommodation of the employee’s religious practices causes the employer to incur greater than minimal costs – which has been defined by the EEOC as “more than ordinary administrative costs.” For example, an employee’s desire to observe religious days may not require disrupting the employer’s standard shifts and workplace operations when accommodation of a disability may so require. The courts and the EEOC also recognize particular latitude in the employer’s response by way of offered accommodation and require that the employee clearly articulate his or her religious beliefs and requested accommodation since religious affliction is not necessarily self-evident, such as membership in other protected categories.
Takeaway: For religious accommodation requests and discrimination claims, employers have certain protections and the law has certain nuances that can differentiate the situation from other types of discrimination problems. With a societal focus on religious rights and the workplace, employers and counsel need to carefully bear this difference in mind.