It’s Complicated: Religion and the Workplace

The Breakdown

Can you require your employees to work on Sundays as a condition of employment? The simple answer is “No,” however the more complicated answer starts with “Yes, but.”

“The law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.”

In order to be protected, an employee must have a sincerely held religious belief. This does not mean that the employee must believe in God or be a part of a traditional organized religion, but rather that he or she is a part of a belief structure concerning “ultimate ideas” about “life, purpose, and death.” These beliefs can be theistic or non-theistic. Once the employee notifies the employer that a work requirement conflicts with the religious belief, practice, or observance, the obligation to provide an accommodation arises.
Common religious accommodations include flexible scheduling and allowing employees to exchange shifts in order to be present for religious services.

So, when can a religious accommodation be denied? Employers are required to reasonably accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs unless doing so would pose an undue hardship. Under Title VII, the undue hardship defense to providing religious accommodation requires a showing that the proposed accommodation in a particular case poses a “more than de minimis” cost or burden. What does this mean for your business? Well, if you have 20 employees who are all qualified to do the same job, then you are going to have a difficult time proving that Orthodox Oliver has to work after sundown on Friday. Will his coworkers be annoyed that he gets most of the weekend off? Yep. Does that matter? Nope. Now, what if you own a very unlikely restaurant concept that is only open on Sundays for brunch from 9AM-11AM and your chef claims a religious exemption from working Sunday mornings? That sounds a lot like an undue hardship because working on Sunday is pretty much your chef’s only job at your restaurant (maybe aside from ordering product).

Let’s consider a more complicated situation where you are open seven days per week, but the majority of your sales occur on Saturdays. What do you do when your sales manager tells you that he can no longer work on Saturdays due to a new sincerely held religious belief?

Contact Human Resources Experience, LLC, for the answer and for all of your proactive legal needs.