Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination, harassment, and retaliation based on an employee’s religion. The U.S. Supreme Court has defined “religious belief” as a belief that is both “religious” in the employee’s own scheme of things and sincerely held by the employee. Thus, the law’s protection extends beyond “traditional” religions.
Title VII also requires employers to “reasonably accommodate” religious beliefs, practices, and observances unless “undue hardship” would result. The Supreme Court has defined “undue hardship” as expending more than a minimal effort or expense. This is much more favorable for employers than the standard under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Since that ruling, however, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and many courts have applied a more stringent test, placing in question the precise standard to be applied. Some states also have employment laws regarding religious discrimination and accommodation.
State-by-state comparison of 50 Employment Laws in 50 States, including religious discrimination and accommodations
Request for religious accommodation
When a religious accommodation is requested, you should discuss the employee’s religious needs and accommodation options with him. When considering potential accommodations, you should evaluate any impact an accommodation would have on your company and determine whether it fully eliminates the conflict.
But the burden to accommodate isn’t always entirely on the employer. An employee must make a good-faith attempt to meet his religious needs through the accommodations offered by the employer. Note that employers aren’t required to give the employee his preferred accommodation. A request that is too burdensome to accommodate fully will have to be negotiated to a reasonable substitute and it is the employee’s responsibility to meet the employer halfway in any negotiations.
Religious accommodations for work schedules
Conflict between an employer’s work/production schedule and an employee’s religious practices and beliefs is probably the most common source of religious accommodation issues. You might have to bend your attendance rules to accommodate an employee’s religious practice or beliefs under Title VII.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that you need not violate a valid labor contract, force other employees to work undesirable shifts, or hire substitute or replacement workers if that accommodation would require more than a minimal monetary cost.
HR Guide to Employment Law, including avoiding workplace discrimination
Religious accommodations for dress codes and employee appearance
An employee must show that alternative clothing or hairstyle is a necessary part of a sincerely held religious belief. In general, you must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs by relaxing the application of your ordinary dress code unless that would cause an undue hardship.
You may require uniforms to help customers identify staff or for other legitimate business reasons. When those interests can still be served even though an employee requests an accommodation (e.g., wearing a scarf in addition to the uniform), the accommodation should be granted. Safety issues like the prohibition of wearing loose garments around machinery, however, don’t need to be overlooked for the sake of accommodation.
Employees who wear beards for religious reasons generally must be accommodated when your interest is simply “professional appearance” or “neatness.” A no-beard policy can be enforced despite religious accommodation requirements in the interest of safety, e.g., when breathing masks or similar equipment require a clean fit or when hygiene issues are present, such as in restaurants or food production.
Employees who need to wear insignia of various sorts because of religious needs generally should be permitted to do so as long as the items don’t pose safety risks, detract from the business purpose of the uniform or dress requirement, or otherwise disrupt the workplace.