• Key point. Employers subject to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (or a comparable state law) have a legal duty to “accommodate” their employees’ religious practices if they can do so without suffering an “undue hardship.” In some cases requiring employees to work on a religious holiday against their will may be an unlawful practice.
A federal court in Nebraska ruled that an employer violated both state and federal law by dismissing an employee who refused to work on Easter Sunday. The employee, a devout Christian, was employed by a convenience store chain as a cashier. A previous manager accommodated the employee’s desire not to work on Easter Sunday by allowing her to work on non—religious holidays (such as New Year’s Day) instead. A new manager was not so accommodating. She scheduled the employee to work the evening shift on Easter Sunday even though she had been fully apprised in writing by the employee of her strong religious opposition to working on Easter Sunday. The employee attended church on Easter Sunday evening rather than go to work, and she was promptly fired. She later sued her employer, claiming that she had been unlawfully discharged on account of her religion.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides that it is an “unlawful employment practice” for employers to dismiss an employee on account of the employee’s religion. Employers with at least 15 employees, and engaged in interstate commerce, are subject to this law. The court noted that in order for the employee to prove that her rights under Title VII were violated she had to establish each of the following: (1) she had a bona fide belief that working on Easter Sunday was contrary to her religious beliefs; (2) she informed her employer of the conflict between her religious beliefs and her job; and (3) she was dismissed because of the exercise of her religious beliefs.
An employer has a couple of defenses under Title VII. First, it is not liable for a Title VII violation if it offers a “reasonable accommodation” to an employee. Second, an employer is not liable under Title VII if it can prove that any attempt to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs would have imposed an “undue hardship.”
The court concluded that the employee proved all three elements of her case, and therefore the employer violated Title VII by dismissing her. First, it pointed to the employee’s long history of church attendance, including attending worship services on Sunday mornings and evenings, as evidence of her bona fide belief that working on Easter Sunday violated her religious beliefs. Second, it noted that the employee had informed her manager in writing of her desire not to work on Easter Sunday. Third, the employee clearly was dismissed because of her religious beliefs.
The court rejected the employer’s defense that it had offered the employee a “reasonable accommodation.” The employer argued that it had offered to let the employee work the Easter Sunday night shift so she could attend services in the morning. The court conceded that an employer is not liable under Title VII if it offers the employee a “reasonable accommodation” of his or her religious beliefs. The court concluded that the employer had failed this test. It observed that the employer “knew that the entirety of Easter was of paramount religious significance to [the employee] and was unlike a normal Sunday.” The court also rejected the employer’s claim that accommodating the employee’s religious beliefs would have imposed an undue burden on it. It noted that the previous manager was willing to allow the employee to work on secular holidays in lieu of working on Easter, and that other employees had indicated a willingness to work “at any time.” The court ordered the employer to pay the employee back pay of $25,000 and “front pay” (wages for the next several months) of $7,500. In addition, the court ordered the employer to pay the employee an additional $10,000 for emotional suffering (it noted that the employee gained 75 pounds following her dismissal as evidence of her emotional suffering).
Application. Many churches have members who are required to work on the Sabbath or on religious holidays. Such an arrangement is not offensive to some. But it is to others. Persons who can demonstrate that their religious convictions prohibit them from working on certain days are entitled to “reasonable accommodation” by their employer. In many cases this will mean “swapping schedules” with other employees. If such accommodations are reasonable, then there is no Title VII violation. The test is one of reasonable accommodation-not an accommodation that is acceptable to the employee. Further, the employer need not engage in any accommodation that will cause it to suffer an undue burden. However, as this case illustrates, this standard is not always provable. Pedersen v. Casey’s General Stores, Inc., 978 F. Supp. 926 (D. Neb. 1997). [The Civil Rights Act of 1964]
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