Posted 06-10-2014

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers with at least 15 employees are required to reasonably accommodate the sincere religious belief of an employee or prospective employee, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship. Accommodation requests come in many shapes and sizes. For example, they can include unpaid time off to pray or attend services. In a curious case now pending before the U.S. District Court in Nevada, an inmate is accusing county jailers of violating his constitutional rights by denying him meals consistent with the strict diet of his religion, including ice cream.

In March of this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published new guidelines that also apply to religious dress (e.g. headscarves, jewelry, body piercings) and grooming policies (e.g. beards). In most instances, employers are required to make exceptions to their usual dress rules or preferences to permit applicants and employees to observe religious dress and grooming practices. Of course, such a request still must not present an undue hardship to the company. Undue hardships must be analyzed on a case by case basis, and the employer may deny the request if the accommodation poses a risk to the health, safety and security of the employee or others.

The guidelines define religions broadly to include not only traditional, organized religions, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, or may even seem illogical or unreasonable to others.

Religious discrimination claims in the workplace have doubled in the last 15 years, and the numbers are rising. Recently, the EEOC settled a case against a Texas-based investment company for $100,000 after a female employee claimed she was wrongfully terminated because she declined to remove her hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women. The employer also was required to draft and publicize an accommodation policy and train managers regarding their obligations.

What this means to you:

If one of your employees requests a religious accommodation, and you are unsure of the best action to take, seek additional guidance. Employers should review their current religious accomodation policies and processes, as well as dress and grooming policies. An essential part of any accomodation process is effective training.

Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.