Religious Discrimination and Accommodation
Overview and Coverage
Title VII prohibits most employers from discriminating against job applicants or employees on the basis of religion. It also requires employers to make a “reasonable accommodation” for an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, so long as the accommodation would not cause the employer to suffer an undue hardship. For an employee’s religion to be protected by Title VII, the religious belief in question must be “sincerely held.” Atlanta employment attorney Justin Scott provides representation and advice to both employers and individuals regarding religious discrimination and accommodation issues.
Title VII prohibits discrimination against employees or prospective employees based on their religion or religious practice. Simply put, an employer may not make an applicant’s religious belief or practice a factor in employment decisions. To merit protection, an employee’s religious belief must be “sincerely held.” Protected religious beliefs must be more than “just a personal preference;” however the employee need not demonstrate that the religious beliefs are “acceptable, logical, consistent or comprehensible to others.” Thomas v. Review Bd. Of Ind. Employment Sec. Div.,450 U.S. 707, 714 (1981). The EEOC Compliance Manual provides that:
Religion is very broadly defined under Title VII. Religious beliefs, practices, and observances include those that are theistic in nature, as well as non-theistic ‘moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.’ Religious beliefs can include unique views held by a few or even one individual; however, mere personal preferences are not religious beliefs. Title VII requires employers to accommodate religious beliefs, practices, and observances if the beliefs are ‘sincerely held’ and the reasonable accommodation poses no undue hardship on the employer.
Note that the EEOC’s definition covers atheism and agnosticism; courts have agreed. See, e.g., Reed v. Great Lakes Cos., 330 F.3d 931 (7th Cir. 2003).
Accommodation and Undue Hardship
Title VII requires employers to accommodate their employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs and practices unless so doing would cause the employer to suffer an undue hardship, which is something more than a minimal burden. This accommodation may include modifying practices that apply to all employees because, depending on the circumstances, “Title VII requires otherwise-neutral policies to give way to the need for an accommodation.” EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, 135 S.Ct. 2208, 2034 (2015).
Types of religious accommodations may include exceptions to the dress code, or modifications of the work schedule to accommodate religious holidays or days of rest.
The Eleventh Circuit has framed the elements of a failure-to-accommodate claim as: (1) the employee held a bona fide religious belief that conflicted with an employment requirement; (2) the employee informed the company of that belief; and (3) the employee suffered an adverse employment action for failing to comply with the conflicting employment requirement. Dixon v. The Hallmark Corp., 627 F.3d 849, 855 (11th Cir. 2010). Should the employee establish those elements, the employer must show that it was unable to make the requested accommodation because to do so would cause an undue hardship to its business. Id.
Regarding undue hardship as to a modified schedule, the EEOC regulations provide that an employer can demonstrate an undue hardship based on such a proposed accommodation by showing that it would require “more than a de minimis cost.” 29 C.F.R. § 1605.2(e)(1). This is assessed based on “the identifiable cost in relation to the size and operating cost of the employer, and the number of individuals who will in fact need a particular accommodation.” Id. The EEOC regulations further state that there would be an undue hardship if the schedule modification would require the employer to vary from a bona fide seniority system and the modification would “deny another employee his or her job or shift preference guaranteed by that system.” 29 C.F.R. § 1605.2(e)(2).
Taking an adverse action that is motivated by an employer’s desire not to accommodate a religious belief or practice violates Title VII. See EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, 135 S.Ct. 2208 (2015).
There are exceptions. For example, Title VII permits religious corporations to discriminate on the basis of religion in employment decisions when an employee’s conduct runs counter to the employer’s religious tenets. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-1(a). Relatedly, educational institutions are exempted from the religious discrimination prohibition provided that the institution is “owned, supported, controlled, or managed” by a particular religious body, or if the educational institution’s curriculum “is directed toward the propagation of a particular religion. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(e)(2). Lastly, courts have recognized a “ministerial exception,” grounded in the First Amendment, which protects the rights of a religious organization to select its own ministers in order “to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171, 189-90 (2012).
Contact Radford Scott LLP at (678) 780-4880 for assistance with religious discrimination and/or accommodation issues, or contact the firm online here.