Religious Accommodation Is An EEOC Hot Button Issue

By: Karen L. Piper

Title VII prohibits discrimination, harassment and retaliation because of an employees’ religion.  Title VII also requires an employer to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and practices when there is a conflict between the employee’s religious belief and a job requirement.

An employer satisfies its duty to accommodate by offering a reasonable accommodation or by showing accommodation would cause undue hardship. Undue hardship, for religious accommodation purposes, only requires showing more than a de minimis burden in terms of cost or administrative burden on the employer or impact on the rights and benefits of other employees.

In 2013, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed 33% more religious discrimination lawsuits than it filed in 2012.  During the same time period, between November and December 2013, the EEOC announced on its web site that it had reached settlements in five lawsuits it had filed alleging failure to accommodate either an employee’s or applicant’s religious beliefs and practices.

In each of the five EEOC settlements, employers paid money to settle the employee’s or an applicant’s claims.  Four of the five cases involved claims of conflict between an employee’s religious beliefs and the employer’s dress code.  For example, a fast food franchise paid a female employee $40,000 for refusing her request to wear a skirt to work, as required by her religion, rather than uniform pants.  A car dealership paid $50,000 to settle a case filed by a qualified applicant who would not shave his beard due to religious reasons.  The fifth settlement of $70,000 was paid by a global shipping company which declined an employee’s request for time off to attend an annual religious service.

As EEOC has increased its enforcement activity of religious discrimination and accommodation claims, now would be an opportune time for employers to: i) review their EEO policies to include information on how an employee should request a religious accommodation; and ii) remind supervisors to consult Human Resources whenever an employee indicates religious reasons for seeking a change in job requirements, such as modification of the dress code or time off for religious reasons.  Experienced employment counsel can provide assistance on both of these issues.

 This article was written by Karen L. Piper who is the Chair of the Legal Affairs Committee of Detroit SHRM and a Member of the law firm of Bodman PLC located in its Troy MI office.  She can be reached at (248) 743-6025 or kpiper@bodmanlaw.com.

Detroit SHRM encourages members to share these articles within their organizations; however, members should refrain from forwarding them outside their organizations or printing for mass distribution without written permission of the Detroit SHRM Executive Committee. January 2014.