Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
The Sabbath and Employment Discrimination
Employers must make efforts to accommodate employees' religious beliefs
Federal
State:
Key point. Employers cannot dismiss or otherwise discriminate against employees who refuse to work on their Sabbath unless accommodating the employee's beliefs would cause an "undue hardship" to the employer.
A federal appeals court ruled that an employer violated an employee's religious beliefs by refusing to make scheduling adjustments to accommodate the employee's refusal to work on the Sabbath. A member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church applied for a full-time job as a food inspector with the State of California. The Church teaches its members to observe the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and to refrain from engaging in secular work during that period. It further teaches that repeated violations of the Sabbath observance imperil one's salvation. The applicant had never worked on the Sabbath. Shortly after applying for the job, the applicant informed a supervisor that he would not be able to work on Saturdays. For several days the applicant and his pastor met with supervisors in an effort to find a solution. The applicant volunteered to work undesirable non-Sabbath shifts (Sundays, nights, holidays) in lieu of Sabbath assignments. The state ultimately decided not to hire the applicant solely on the basis of his refusal to work on Saturdays. The employee sued the state in federal district court, but the court ruled in favor of the state. The employee appealed, and a federal appeals court ruled that the state had violated the employee's rights under Title VII. The court began its opinion by noting that Title VII prohibits a covered employer from discriminating on the basis of religion in any employment decision. Title VII defines "religion" to include "all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief," and imposes a duty on employers to engage in "reasonable accommodation" of employees' religion. The court noted that "it is therefore unlawful for an employer not to make unreasonable accommodations, short of undue hardship, for the religious practices of [its] employees and prospective employees." The court rejected the state's claim that an accommodation of the applicant's religious practices would create an "undue hardship." The state argued that allowing the applicant to take off every Saturday would have unfairly discriminated against other employees who would have had to work "more than their fair share of Friday night and Saturday day and evening shifts." This arrangement in turn would have led to "substantial morale problems," the state insisted. The state also claimed that permitting "voluntary shift trades" with other employees was not feasible, since other employees were unwilling to trade shifts with the applicant on a regular basis.

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Posted: May 1, 1997
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