Issue Briefs

Following is an article in a recent compilation of EEOC decisions involving federal employees providing an overview of law regarding religious rights in the workplace and agency obligations to make accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Title VII protects workers from employment discrimination based on their religion.[1] The law forbids discrimination in any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, training, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment.[2] Title VII also prohibits employers from subjecting an employee to a hostile work environment because of his or her religious beliefs or practices, or because the employee chooses not to engage in religious beliefs or practices.[3] An unlawful hostile environment based on religion might take the form of verbal and/or physical harassment or the unwelcome imposition of religious views or practices on an employee.[4]

ADVERTISEMENT


Title VII further requires reasonable accommodation of an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, observances, and practices when requested.[5] Under Title VII, employers are required to accommodate the religious practices of their employees unless a requested accommodation is shown to impose an undue hardship.[6] The U.S. Supreme Court has defined undue hardship as an accommodation that would require more than a de minimis cost.[7]

The need for religious accommodation most often arises where an individual’s religious beliefs, observances, or practices conflict with a specific task or requirement of the job or application process.[8] The employer’s duty to accommodate will usually entail making a special exception from, or adjustment to the specific requirement so that the employee or applicant will be able to practice his or her religion.[9] Accommodation requests often relate to work schedules, dress and grooming, or religious expression or practice while at work.[10] Alternatives for accommodating an employee’s religious practices include, but are not limited to, voluntary schedule substitutes and swaps, flexible scheduling, and lateral transfers or job changes.[11]

The prohibition on religious discrimination and requirement for reasonable accommodation apply whether an employee’s religious views are mainstream or non-traditional, and even if the views are not recognized by an organized religion.[12] Title VII’s protections also extend to individuals who profess no religious beliefs.[13] Further, the Commission defines “religious practices” to include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.[14] Mere personal preferences, or social, political, or economic philosophies, however, are not religious beliefs protected by Title VII.[15]

Establishing a Claim of Denial of Religious Accommodation

The traditional framework for establishing a prima facie case of discrimination based on religious accommodation requires an employee to demonstrate that: (1) he or she has a bona fide religious belief, the practice of which conflicted with their employment; (2) he or she informed the agency of this belief and conflict; and (3) the agency nevertheless enforced its requirement against the employee.[16] Once the employee establishes a prima facie case, the agency must show that it made a good faith effort to reasonably accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs and, if such proof fails, the agency must show that the alternative means of accommodation proffered by the employee could not be granted without imposing an undue hardship on the agency’s operations.[17] Undue hardship does not become a defense until the employer claims it as a defense to its duty to accommodate, and, as noted, an employer must demonstrate that an accommodation would require more than a de minimis cost.[18]

Recent Commission Decisions

Denial of Religious Accommodation

In Melania U. v. U.S. Postal Serv.,[19] the Commission found that the Agency discriminated against Complainant when it denied her requests for religious accommodation. Complainant’s supervisor repeatedly denied Complainant’s requests to have Sundays off to observe her religion. While the supervisor stated that he could not grant Complainant’s requests because other employees already had Sundays off based on seniority, neither the supervisor nor Complainant’s second-level supervisor explored any other type of accommodation for Complainant. For example, the Agency did not ask other employees whether they would voluntarily change their work schedules. The Commission found the supervisors’ statements that they needed Complainant to work on Sundays because there were “too many vacancies,” and that the Agency could not manage with only one supervisor were speculative and insufficient to demonstrate an undue hardship.

Complainant in Stanton S. v. U.S. Postal Serv.,[20] submitted a written request to his Manager for a religious accommodation, stating that due to his religious beliefs he is not permitted to work on Sundays. The Manager responded to Complainant’s religious accommodation request in writing, notifying him that another employee had volunteered to work on Sundays, so Complainant would not need to routinely work on that day. When Complainant failed to report for training as scheduled on several Sundays, however, he was marked as absent without official leave (AWOL) and issued a Notice of Removal for failing to report to work on three consecutive Sundays, as well as failure to report to work on two days when he used approved leave. Complainant filed an EEO complaint alleging, among other things, that the Agency discriminated against him on the basis of religion (Methodist).

On appeal, the Commission noted that Complainant clearly provided the Agency with a letter indicating that his religious belief forbade him from working on Sundays. Despite the Agency’s indication that another employee would take on the regular Sunday assignment, the Agency still required Complainant to come to work on three consecutive Sundays to attend training and indicated that Complainant would be expected to work some Sundays as a backup to the other employee. Accordingly, the Agency essentially denied Complainant’s religious accommodation. In addition, the Agency did not provide any evidence regarding the availability of other employees who could serve as a Sunday backup. As such, the Commission concluded that the Agency failed to meet its burden of proving undue hardship in granting Complainant’s request for religious accommodation. The Commission also concluded that the first removal was inextricably intertwined with the Agency’s unlawful denial of religious accommodation. The Commission noted that while Complainant later exhibited inappropriate conduct when he used profanity and walked out of a meeting, the evidence of record did not support a finding that this conduct would have resulted in a removal action had it not been for the conflict over Complainant’s requests for religious accommodation and the imposition of the first removal.

In Mac O. v. U.S. Postal Serv.,[21] Complainant, a Seventh-Day Adventist, filed a formal complaint alleging, among other things, that the Agency denied him an accommodation not to work on his Sabbath. The Commission has held that accommodations that would require an employer to regularly pay premium wages such as overtime to substitute employees impose more than a de minimis cost on the employer and could constitute an undue hardship. The Agency, however, cannot raise the issue of overtime or any other financial or logistical issue as an undue hardship until it demonstrates that it made a reasonable effort to find an accommodation that would enable Complainant to practice his religion without having to worry about losing his job. In this case, neither the Postmaster nor the Customer Service Manager made any effort to look into the possibility of schedule swaps or any other type of accommodation, and the Manager admitted as much. Consequently, the Agency could not support its assertion that granting Complainant his request to have Saturdays off would have caused an undue hardship by forcing it to incur overtime. The Commission found that the Agency denied Complainant’s request for a religious accommodation when it refused to allow him to have Saturdays off.

Complainant in Colby S. v. Dep’t of Agric.,[22] alleged that the Agency failed to accommodate his religious beliefs by denying him a training exemption and directing him to complete a mandatory EEO training module. The Commission noted that employers are required to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and practices unless it can show that doing so would cause an undue hardship. There are situations in which an employer can show that it would pose an undue hardship to excuse an employee from any part of a training, even if the employee asserts it is contrary to his or her religious beliefs to attend. For example, because an employer needs to ensure that its employees know about and comply with workplace rules regarding discrimination and harassment, it would be an undue hardship to excuse an employee from training that simply discusses and reinforces such conduct rules but does not attempt to alter the employee’s religious beliefs. The Commission remanded the complaint for further investigation, finding that the record was insufficiently developed to determine whether the Agency could show an undue hardship.

In Ronnie S. v. Dep’t of Veterans Affairs,[23] Complainant alleged, among other things, that the Agency failed to provide him with religious accommodation so that he could attend Easter services. The Commission has recognized several alternatives for accommodating conflicts between work schedules and religious practices, including voluntary substitutions and swaps, flexible scheduling, lateral transfers, and changes in job assignments. Regarding voluntary substitutions or swaps, the Commission has stated that the obligation to accommodate requires employers to facilitate the securing of a voluntary substitute. In this matter, the record did not show that the Agency took any action to facilitate voluntary swaps. Instead, management placed the burden solely on Complainant. Consequently, the Commission did not find that the Agency’s suggestion that Complainant ask colleagues to swap schedules constituted a good faith effort to reasonably accommodate Complainant’s religious beliefs.

[1] 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(a)(prohibition of employment discrimination by federal agencies based on religion); EEOC Compliance Manual, Section 12, Religious Discrimination, NO. 915.003 (July 22, 2008).

[2] 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a).

[3] EEOC Compliance Manual, Section 12, Religious Discrimination, NO. 915.003 (July 22, 2008).

[4] Id.

[5] 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j); EEOC Compliance Manual, Section 12, Religious Discrimination, NO. 915.003 (July 22, 2008).

[6] EEOC Compliance Manual, Section 12, Religious Discrimination, NO. 915.003 (July 22, 2008).

[7] Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977).

[8] See Ian S. v. Dep’t of the Treasury, EEOC Appeal No. 0120160622 (Apr. 27, 2018).

[9] Id.

[10]Id.

[11] 29 C.F.R. § 1605.2(d)(1).

[12] EEOC Compliance Manual, Section 12, Religious Discrimination, NO. 915.003 (July 22, 2008).

[13] Id. (discrimination against someone due to the absence of religious belief also violates Title VII).

[14] 29 C.F.R. § 1605.1.

[15] See EEOC Compliance Manual, Section 12, Religious Discrimination, NO. 915.003 (July 22, 2008).

[16] See Ian S. v. Dep’t of the Treasury, EEOC Appeal No. 0120160622 (Apr. 27, 2018).

[17] See Mac O. v. U.S. Postal Serv., EEOC Appeal No. 0120152431 (Nov. 29, 2017), request for reconsideration denied, EEOC Request No. 0520180180 (Apr. 25, 2018).

[18] Id.

[19] EEOC Appeal No. 0120180092 (May 15, 2019).

[20] EEOC Appeal No. 0120172696 (Feb. 5, 2019).

[21] EEOC Appeal No. 0120152431 (Nov. 29, 2017), request for reconsideration denied, EEOC Request No. 0520180180 (Apr. 25, 2018).

[22] EEOC Appeal No. 0120170007 (Nov. 16, 2017); see also Billy L. v. Dep’t of Agric., EEOC Appeal No. 0120171010 (Nov. 16, 2017); Collin R. v. Dep’t of Agric., EEOC Appeal No. 0120170846 (Nov. 16, 2017).

[23] EEOC Appeal No. 0120132198 (May 17, 2016), request for reconsideration denied, EEOC Request No. 0520170053 (Feb. 2, 2017) (Commission reopened on its own motion to address the party’s settlement agreement but did not disturb the initial finding of discrimination).