Special religious accommodations requested by employees can be related to many different things: their schedules, the uniforms they’re required to wear, unique ways in which they adorn themselves, and even ways that other employees celebrate or honor their own religious beliefs. Here are some common examples:

• “You have to let me wear my headscarf with my scrubs.”
• “These tattoos are a sacred religious practice.”
• “Your Christmas tree/music/party is offensive to me.”

You may not have heard these specific employee statements yet, but you may hear something like them sooner or later. Cases of religious discrimination in the workplace have doubled. Whatever the reason for the increase, as employers and managers, it is vital that we understand what protections employees have when it comes to religious liberty.

Title VII and similar state laws protect all aspects of religious observance, whether the religion is a set of traditional beliefs, such as Christianity, Judaism, Hindu or Islam, or a new or uncommon religion, such as a sect subscribed to by a small number of people. This protection is in place even if their beliefs seem illogical or unreasonable to others. In fact, Title VII’s protections also extend to those who are discriminated against because they profess no religious beliefs at all or because they are married to or associated with someone who professes those beliefs.

The idea here is that employers may not take a negative employment action against an employee because of a certain religious affiliation (or lack thereof), nor can they select one applicant over another based on a preference for their own religion.

Your Religious Accommodation Requirements

At CEDR, we caution our members that employers are required to accommodate the right of religious employees to wear religion-required clothes, tattoos, or headwear, as long as it does not create an undue hardship on the employer. Some of our members have seen this come up for employees whose religious beliefs do not permit women to wear pants, and have permitted an exception for those employees to wear skirt-scrubs instead. Other offices have run into an issue with female employees requesting to wear a hijab, or Muslim headscarf, in addition to their regular uniform. Similarly, McDonalds settled a case for $50,000 for an employee’s right to grow a beard.

Examples of other accommodations may include schedule changes to attend religious services, flexible arrival or departure times, or unpaid time off to observe religious holidays. Recently, the EEOC filed a discrimination case against an employer for refusing to accommodate an employee who requested an exemption from using a biometric hand-scanning clocking system, based on her belief that there was a relationship between the scanning technology and the “Mark of the Beast” discussed in the Book of Revelation of the New Testament.

How Far Should You Go When Making Accommodations?

The laws say that, “Once an employer is on notice of the need for a religious accommodation, an employer must accommodate reasonable requests, so long as they do not pose an undue hardship.” Undue hardship is generally considered to be a “significant difficulty or expense,” and not merely a de minimis cost or burden on the operation of the business. The hardship should rely on objective information, like safety, not hypothetical concerns about the feelings of other employees or perceptions of patients. In fact, recent guidelines clarify the fact that customer preferences, whether expressed or merely perceived, do not constitute an undue hardship, and neither do emotions or opinions expressed by or perceived in other employees (whether jealousy, annoyance, decreased morale at not being allowed their own modifications to the dress code, or any other emotional response).

In some cases, employers should grant the accommodation but may make their own reasonable request to mitigate a factor that would otherwise present a health or safety risk. For example, an employee working in a sterile environment who has made a religious commitment not to shave his beard might seek a religious accommodation to exempt him from the usual grooming policy. In this case, the employer should make the reasonable accommodation, but may ask the employee to wear a face mask, or (if face masks are already worn) an extra face mask, to mitigate any health or safety risk.

Three Things You Can Take Away:

  1. Sincerely held religious beliefs, whether common or not, must be taken seriously.
  2. Employers should never deny requested accommodations unless they present a health, safety, or security risk.
  3. Remember that you can make reasonable requests to address a potential health or safety risk created by a religious accommodation.

The bottom line is that religious rights and practices of employees must be taken seriously, whether or not the employer thinks the underlying religious belief is reasonable, or is even familiar with it. Furthermore, employers should not deny requested accommodations unless they would present a health, safety, or security risk. For any sincerely held religious belief for which accommodation does not impose an undue hardship, employers must make the accommodation.

As always, if there is any question as to whether an accommodation must be made in a specific circumstance, CEDR members should call the Solution Center at 866-414-6056 and speak to an expert, or email solutioncenter@cedrsolutions.com.