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Faith in the Courts

A Pentecostal delivery-room nurse refuses to participate in emergency procedures that might terminate a pregnancy. An Orthodox Jewish pharmacist balks at selling condoms. A letter carrier runs afoul of a collective bargaining agreement by trying to avoid work on Saturdays when he observes Sabbath.

According to a recent Lutheran Brotherhood survey, 9% of Americans say employers have discouraged them from taking time off for religious activities. Charges of religious discrimination in the workplace have increased by 28% since 1992, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In 1999 the EEOC received 1,811 complaints concerning religious discrimination.

Workplace concessions

Despite spiraling litigation, employers have not been vigilant in combating religious discrimination.

A 1998 survey by the Society of Human Resources Management found only 13% of 750 respondents said their companies accommodated religious attire worn by workers. And barely 18% of businesses instruct managers in how to handle religious requests, according to a Tanenbaum Center study.

On the other hand, companies such as Oracle provide prayer rooms for workers. Microsoft conducts noon Torah classes, and Boeing employees can participate in Bible, Koran or Torah study groups.

Employers must be attuned to employees’ observance and appearance requirements, sensitive to proselytizing at the office and alert to harassment of workers based on their beliefs. Additionally, businesses should be acquainted with the state and federal laws against religious discrimination in the workplace.

Federal law

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlaws discrimination against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing and other employment terms and conditions. The act compels employers to accommodate within reason the religious practices of a worker or prospective employee, unless it creates an undue hardship for the business.

Some examples of adjustments a company might make:

  • Flexible scheduling of arrival or departure time.
  • Offering floating or optional holidays.
  • Permitting a worker to make up time lost because of religious observance.

The courts have even viewed job reassignment or lateral transfer as a reasonable accommodation for an employer to make. A labor organization may accommodate individuals whose religious beliefs preclude them from joining or paying dues by allowing them to donate the union dues to a charitable institution.

Undue hardship

An employer does not have to agree to a religion-based adjustment if the accommodation poses an undue hardship for the employer: Example: If the religious practice at issue causes the employer to incur more than ordinary administrative costs, the undue hardship standard is satisfied. Similarly, the undue-hardship standard is satisfied if the proposed accommodation denies another worker a job or shifts preference otherwise ensured by seniority rules.

For example, in 1977 the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Trans World Airlines when an employee, who was a member of the Worldwide Church of God, sought a schedule change to avoid working on Saturdays. The requested change violated the collective bargaining agreement, which the High Court found more sacrosanct than the religious practices of the worker.

The flurry of global corporate mergers and acquisitions has magnified religious diversity as a workplace concern. Many companies, for example, have extended their three-day bereavement leave policy to five days to accommodate Jewish employees who practice a weeklong Shiva mourning rite.

Writer: Sheldon C. Toplitt is a lawyer and legal journalist concentrating on employment law issues in Needham, Mass.