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Failure to Accommodate Employees’ Religious Practices

§ 8.12.07
Key Point 8-12.07. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits covered employers from discriminating against any employee on account of the employee's religion. Employers are required to "reasonably accommodate" employees' religious practices, so long as they can do so without undue hardship on the conduct of their business. Many state civil rights laws have a similar provision.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for a covered employer to "discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's … religion." Religion is defined to include only those "aspects of religious observance and practice" that an employer is able to "reasonably accommodate … without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business." The intent and effect of this definition of "religion" is to make it a violation of Title VII for an employer not to make reasonable accommodations, short of undue hardship, for the religious practice of employees.

Courts have implemented a two-step procedure for evaluating claims and allocating burdens of proof under these provisions. First, plaintiff has the burden of establishing a "prima facie case." A plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of religious discrimination by proving that (1) he or she has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement; (2) he or she informed the employer of this belief; and (3) he or she was disciplined for failure to comply with the conflicting employment requirement. Second, if a plaintiff has proven a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to show that it was unable reasonably to accommodate the plaintiff's religious needs without undue hardship.

Several courts have ordered employers to make "reasonable accommodations" of the religious needs of employees whose religious beliefs prevented them from working on certain days of the week. Most courts have required employers to attempt scheduling adjustments or reassignments prior to dismissing such employees.[107] See, e.g., Tincher v. WalMart Stores, Inc., 118 F.3d 1125 (7th Cir. 1997) (employer found liable); Heller v. EBB Auto Co., 8 F.3d 1433 (9th Cir. 1993) (employer found liable); Shpargel v. Stage & Co., 914 F.Supp. 1468 (E.D. Mich. 1996) (employer found liable); E.E.O.C. v. Arlington Transit Mix Inc., 734 F.Supp. 804 (E.D. Mich. 1990), rev'd on other grounds, 957 F.2d 219 (employer found liable); Riley v. Bendix Corp., 464 F.2d 1113 (5th Cir. 1972) (employer found liable); Jackson v. Veri Fresh Poultry, Inc., 304 F. Supp. 1276 (D. La. 1972) (employer found liable); Shaffield v. Northrop Worldwide Aircraft Services, Inc., 373 F. Supp. 937 (D. Ala. 1973) (employer found liable); Claybaugh v. Pacific Northwestern Bell Telephone Company, 355 F. Supp. 1 (D. Ore. 1973) (employer found liable). If rescheduling, reassignments, or other accommodations would impose undue hardship on the employer, then accommodation of employees' religious practices is not required.[108] See, e.g., Hardison v. Trans World Airlines, 527 F.2d 22 (8th Cir. 1976) (employer proved undue hardship); Reid v. Memphis Publishing Company, 521 F.2d 512 (6th Cir. 1975) (employer proved undue hardship); Dixon v. Omaha Public Power District, 385 F. Supp. 1382 (D. Neb. 1976).

Case Study. A county government employed a conservative Christian as director of its data processing department. The director was dismissed because of overtly religious practices, including: (1) his secretary typed Bible study notes for him; (2) he allowed employees to recite prayers in his office prior to the start of the workday and during departmental meetings; and (3) affirming his Christian faith during department meetings. The director sued the county claiming that his dismissal amounted to religious discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A federal appeals court agreed in part with the director. It noted that Title VII prohibits covered employers from dismissing an employee on account of religion "unless an employer demonstrates that it is unable to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of [its] business." The court noted that the county had made no attempt to accommodate the director's religious practices, and therefore it could defend against the charge of religious discrimination only by demonstrating that it would have suffered "undue hardship" had it not dismissed the director. The court cautioned that "undue hardship" must be real rather than speculative, and that it requires more than "some fellow worker's grumbling." An employer must demonstrate "actual imposition on coworkers or disruption of the work routine." The court agreed with the county that allowing the director to have his secretary type Bible study notes would impose an undue hardship on the county, and therefore a dismissal based on this conduct would not violate Title VII. The court reached the same conclusion with regard to the prayer meetings conducted in the director's office prior to the start of the workday. It noted that "nothing in Title VII requires that an employer open its premises for use before the start of the workday." However, the court disagreed that the county would have suffered "undue hardship" by allowing the director to utter occasional and spontaneous prayers during departmental meetings or to make occasional affirmations of religious faith. The court concluded that such expressions were "inconsequential … especially since they were apparently spontaneous and infrequent" and no employee complained about them. They did not result in "actual imposition on coworkers or disruption of the work routine." As a result, the court concluded that the director could maintain his religious discrimination lawsuit against the county. [109] Brown v. Polk County, 61 F.3d 650 (8th Cir. 1995). The court also concluded that the county's actions may have violated the director's First Amendment right to freely exercise his religion. See also Shrum v. City of Coweta, 449 F.3d 1132 (10th Cir. 2006); Berry v. Department of Social Services, 447 F.3d 642 (9th Cir. 2006); Baker v. The Home Depot, 445 F.3d 541 (2nd Cir. 2006); Storey v. Burns International Security Services, 390 F.3d 760 (3rd Cir. 2004); Cloutier v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 390 F.3d 126 (1st Cir. 2004).
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