OFFICIAL PUBLICATION OF THE INDIANA BANKERS ASSOCIATION

Vol. 108 2024 Issue 2 (Mar/Apr)

HR Topics: Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

Each request for a religious accommodation is fact-specific and requires an individual analysis.

Discrimination based on religion is prohibited by federal and state law, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Indiana Civil Rights Act. Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating because of religion in hiring, promotion, termination, compensation, or other terms and conditions of employment. Employers are also required to reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, practices and observances unless the accommodation would be an undue hardship on the business.

The reasonable accommodation requirement is meant to allow the employee to observe religious practices, but it does not impose a duty “to accommodate at all costs.”1

Undue hardship is not defined under Title VII and had previously been interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court as “more than a de minimis cost.”2 This was a lower burden for employers to satisfy than the familiar “undue hardship” defense under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires employers to demonstrate a “significant difficulty or expense.”

Last summer, in Groff v. DeJoy, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified that employers must show something more akin to “substantial additional costs, or substantial expenditure” if they are going to deny a request for a religious accommodation.3 The Court noted that this is a context-specific standard that requires employers to look at all the relevant factors and consider all viable options.

In Groff, the employee worked as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. The USPS entered into a contract with Amazon to deliver its packages, which necessitated working on Sundays. The employee was an evangelical, Protestant Christian, and his religion views Sundays as a day of worship and rest. The employee requested an accommodation not to work on Sundays. The USPS accommodated his request by transferring him to another location where Sunday deliveries were not required. Eventually, however, that other location required employees to work on Sundays. The USPS offered to allow the employee time off to worship during the Sunday shift. The employee declined and continued to not work on Sundays. He was disciplined and eventually resigned. The employee then sued his employer under Title VII for failing to accommodate his request. The USPS argued that exempting him from working Sundays was disruptive to the workplace and business operations and had a negative effect on employee morale.

The district court and Third Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the USPS, finding that requiring the USPS to bear more than a de minimis cost would be an undue hardship. The Supreme Court disagreed and, as noted above, found that the application of the de minimis standard was not appropriate. Instead, if an employer is going to deny an accommodation, the employer must show substantial increased costs or difficulties, taking into consideration all relevant factors, including the practical impact of the accommodation “in light of the nature, size and operating cost of an employer.”

The Court also offered the following guidance:

  • The effect on coworkers is only relevant to the extent that it affects the employer’s business operations.
  • A hardship that relates to employee hostility toward a particular religion generally, or the idea of accommodating a religious practice, cannot be an “undue hardship.”
  • An employer cannot simply conclude that making other employees work overtime would constitute an undue hardship; rather, an employer must consider other viable options.

Reasonable accommodation and the undue hardship analysis are fact-sensitive and depend on the circumstances. The most common requests for religious accommodations employers face relate to headwear, prayer breaks and time off work.

With respect to headwear, employers are generally unsuccessful in court when they have denied an accommodation to wear religious garb (e.g., a kufi, turban or head scarf) on the basis that the accommodation goes against their image or dress code for professional or business-like attire or because customers might be uncomfortable. To justify a denial of such a request, an employer needs to show a valid workplace safety, health or security issue that presents a significant difficulty.

As for prayer breaks, an employer should consider whether they have a rest break policy that would accommodate the prayer time. Even if the employer does not allow rest breaks, whether the employer allows smoke breaks, lunch breaks or pumping breaks for nursing mothers, for example, is relevant due to the similarity in terms of time away from active work and the need for a private space.

Time off work is typically the more difficult accommodation. For example, providing time off every Friday afternoon to attend prayer service may not be an undue hardship for a large bank branch but may be for a small branch if that is the busiest day and time and the branch only has a few employees. But before denying the request, the employer should consider any viable alternative options (e.g., if the employee can work a different schedule or swap shifts with another employee).

Keep in mind that the accommodation that is offered need not be the employee’s preferred accommodation, or even the accommodation that is most beneficial to the employee, if there is an alternative that reasonably accommodates the employee’s religious needs. In other words, an employer can either show (1) that it provided the employee with a reasonable accommodation for their religious need (even if it is not the one requested by the employee) or (2) that the accommodation was not provided because it would result in an undue hardship.

Employers should have a religious accommodation policy. Managers should be trained on the policy. Requests for accommodation should be referred to Human Resources to make sure they are handled appropriately. Each request for a religious accommodation is fact-specific and requires an individual analysis.

The information in this article is provided for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or an opinion of any kind. You should consult with legal counsel for advice on your institution’s specific legal issues.

  1. Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977); Ansonia Bd. of Educ. v. Philbrook, 479 U.S. 70 (1986).
  2. Id.
  3. Groff v. DeJoy, Postmaster General. 600 U.S. 447 (2023).

Debbie grew up watching her father practice law and seeing him help people resolve their problems inspired her to become a lawyer. With a focus on employment litigation and counseling, Debbie’s practice includes defending employers against discrimination claims, wage and hour violations, retaliation claims, unfair competition and FLSA collective actions. She also handles a wide range of business litigation matters.

Email Debbie at DMastrian@AmundsenDavisLaw.com.

AmundsenDavis

Amundsen Davis LLC is a Diamond Associate Member of the Indiana Bankers Association.

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