Tis The Season to Accommodate Your Employee’s Religious Beliefs

This time of year is significant to many religions, a great many of which do not celebrate the Christian tradition of Christmas. (This is not an invitation to discuss the Pagan origins of the Christmas tradition. My daughter, the missionary, has already given me an ear-full. Please allow me my fantasy that Baby Jesus had a beautiful spruce tree topped with a real angel at his birth.) A few of the more well-known religious holidays are listed below.

Bodhi Day  This Buddhist holiday, which commemorates the day that Siddhartha Guatama, the historical Buddha, experienced enlightenment, is traditionally celebrated on Dec. 8.

Christmas  This celebration of the birth of Jesus, the central figure of Christianity, takes place on Dec. 25. For Eastern Orthodox Christians, it takes place on Jan. 7.

Diwali  This five-day Hindu Festival of Lights begins Nov. 6 in 2018 and Oct. 27 in 2019.

Eid al-Fitr  This celebration that marks the end of Ramadan in the Muslim faith has shifting dates and can sometimes fall in December. (This currently falls at sundown on June 4, 2019.)

Hanukkah  In 2018, this eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights will start at sundown on Dec. 2 and end at sundown Dec. 10.

Kwanzaa  This weeklong secular holiday honoring African-American heritage is celebrated Dec. 26 – Jan. 1 each year.

Lunar New Year  This traditional Chinese holiday marking the end of winter falls on Feb. 5, 2019.

Yule  This Wiccan or pagan celebration of the winter solstice takes place every year between Dec. 20 and Dec. 23.

(Source: Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding)

Most employers are aware that Title VII both prohibits religious discrimination and requires that a covered employer must reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs. This may include allowing an employee off of work. This does not mean however, that an employer must allow an employee off of work merely because they claim that “their religion” requires them to be off work. According to the EEOC, an employer need not provide the employee’s requested accommodation, in our case time off of work, if doing so would “impose more than a de minimis cost or burden on business operations”. As you can see, employers catch a break here. The de minimis standard is much more employer-friendly than the “undue burden” imposed by the ADA.

Don’t be too hasty to deny an employee’s request for accommodation because their “religion” sounds farfetched. (Anyone familiar with the Onion Heads? https://www.workplaceclassaction.com/2016/10/now-something-known-as-onionhead-is-a-religion-for-which-the-eeoc-can-bring-a-religious-discrimination-suit/).

According to the EEOC, in addition to the more main-stream religions, Title VII’s protections also apply to:

“…religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others. An employee’s belief or practice can be ‘religious’ under Title VII even if the employee is affiliated with a religious group that does not espouse or recognize that individual’s belief or practice, or if few – or no – other people adhere to it. Title VII’s protections also extend to those who are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs.

Religious beliefs include theistic beliefs (i.e. those that include a belief in God) as well as non-theistic ‘moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.’ Although courts generally resolve doubts about particular beliefs in favor of finding that they are religious, beliefs are not protected merely because they are strongly held. Rather, religion typically concerns ‘ultimate ideas’ about ‘life, purpose, and death.’ Social, political, or economic philosophies, as well as mere personal preferences, are not ‘religious’ beliefs protected by Title VII.

So, as we move through the holiday season, keep an open mind if your employees indicate that they need some sort of an accommodation for their religious beliefs. Typical accommodations recognized by the EEOC include flexible scheduling, voluntary shift substitutions or swaps, job reassignments, and modifications to workplace policies or practices. If you receive a request for accommodation, I would suggest that you go through an ADA-like analysis and, to beat the drum again, document the process that you used to consider the request.

Now if you will excuse me, as a recent convert to the “Church of Two Wheels”, I feel called to take off early and go for a ride…

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