The Sabbath and Employment Discrimination

Employers must make efforts to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs

Church Law and Tax 1997-05-01

Employment Practices

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.

The court disagreed that accommodating the applicant’s religious beliefs would create an undue hardship. In rejecting the state’s claim that adjusting schedules of other employees to accommodate the applicant’s religious beliefs would impose an undue hardship, the court observed:

All employees … were required to work an equal number of undesirable weekend, holiday, and night shifts. So long as [the applicant] worked that equal number of undesirable shifts, being assigned a holiday, Sunday, or night shift for every shift he missed to observe the Sabbath, he would not have been granted any preferential treatment, nor would any cognizable burden have been imposed on other employees who simply were assigned one undesirable shift instead of another. No evidence was offered that the shift assignments could not have been arranged in a manner that would have ensured that [the applicant] and the other employees all received an equal number of undesirable shifts. Therefore, the state failed to [demonstrate] that [the applicant’s] practice of observing the Sabbath could not have been accommodated through scheduling arrangements without affording him preferential treatment.

The court also rejected the state’s claim that the applicant’s religious beliefs could not be accommodated through voluntary shift trades with other employees:

[T]he state could have prepared a six-month or year-long schedule in advance, determined how many Sabbath shifts [the applicant] would ordinarily be assigned, and then determined how many of those shifts his coworkers would be willing to accept in exchange for undesirable Sunday, holiday, or night shifts that they would otherwise have had to work. It is not unreasonable to assume that other employees would have been willing to trade for many, if not all, of [the applicant’s] Sabbath shifts in exchange for shifts that they were assigned and might have found even more undesirable. By preparing a tentative schedule, the state might well have determined that voluntary shift trades would completely eliminate the hypothetical difficulty resulting from the need to accommodate [the applicant’s] religious beliefs.

With regard to the state’s concern about “morale problems” among its employees if the applicant’s religious beliefs were accommodated, the court noted that “hypothetical morale problems are clearly insufficient to establish undue hardship.”

Application. Many churches have members who are opposed on the basis of religious beliefs from working on their Sabbath. They often are placed in the difficult position of accepting Sabbath work assignments or facing dismissal. This case will be very helpful to such individuals. It illustrates that employers must make serious efforts to accommodate the religious beliefs of such employees. Such efforts may include scheduling arrangements and shift trades. Opuku-Boateng v. State of California, 95 F.3d 1461 (9th Cir. 1996). [The Civil Rights Act of 1964]

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