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Aug 07, 2017

Religious accomodation in the workplace

By: Allison Mann

Religious accommodation has once again made news with a legal horror story from which every human resource professional should learn. A West Virginia company was recently faced with a half-million-dollar lawsuit regarding its refusal to offer religious accommodation, and the employee came out with the win. This case provides the perfect opportunity to refresh your recollection as to the requirements of offering religious accommodation in the workplace.

The Law:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act provides that employers may not discriminate based on religion. This includes refusing to offer reasonable accommodations for an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs. The definition of religion under Title VII includes both traditional religions (Judaism, Christianity, Buddism, etc.) along with more contemporary or uncommon beliefs. As long as the belief or request stems from a religious root, an employer must generally offer reasonable accommodation, absent undue hardship to the employer.

EEOC v. Consul Energy:

Now, for the case that has sparked attention to this topic and sparked new debate. It comes to us out of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Consul Energy, our defendant, was implementing biometric scanners as a new monitoring protocol at the coal mine at which the plaintiff worked. The scanners required the employees to scan their hand when coming to or going from work. The plaintiff, a devout evangelical Christian, informed his supervisors that this practice would conflict with his religious beliefs. In sum, the employee believes that use of the hand scanner is correlated with the Mark of the Beast referred to in the Book of Revelation. Plaintiff believed that use of the hand scanner would result in being “marked” for the Antichrist. He would not be able to use this new system, and requested an accommodation.

The employer refused to accommodate the plaintiff, despite the fact that it had already offered accommodation to several other employees that suffered from hand injuries. The employee quit his job to avoid violating his religious beliefs. The EEOC brought suit, prevailed at the District Court, and then Consul Energy appealed.

Consul Energy’s main argument to the Fourth Circuit was essentially that the plaintiff would be able to use the scanner without violating his religious beliefs because the scanner would leave no actual mark—which plaintiff acknowledged. Plaintiffs belief, however, did not require a physical mark. The court sided with the plaintiff, holding that it is not the employer’s place to question the correctness or the plausibility of the religious belief, as long as it is sincerely held by the employee. There was no question that accommodating the employee would have caused Consul Energy an undue hardship, as it had already accommodated other employees. Thus, the appellate court affirmed the award in favor of the plaintiff.

The Takeaway:

It is clear that ignoring religious accommodation can result in serious consequences to employers. Religious accommodation can come in many forms. Some common accommodations include the following:

    • Exceptions to a dress code;
    • Schedule changes to attend religious services; and
    • Break for daily prayer.

However, as demonstrated by the Consul Energy case, a requested accommodation is not limited to these more common circumstances. Employers should have a plan in place to react to, evaluate, and address requests for reasonable accommodation due to religious beliefs. In addition, it is advised that employers contact competent counsel when specific questions arise.

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(Otherwise known as “the fine print”)

I make a serious effort to be accurate in my writings. These articles are not exhaustive treatises, though, so do not consider them complete or authoritative. Providing this information to you does not create an attorney-client relationship with my firm or me. Do not act upon the contents of this or of any article on our homepage or consider it a replacement for professional advice.

Reprinted with permission from an article submitted for publication in the August, 2017 Southwest Area Human Resource Association newsletter.