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Religious Accommodation In The Workplace

Most of the time when one discusses accommodations on the job, one is doing so under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA permits disabled workers to seek reasonable accommodations from their employers in order to perform their job more competently. However, there is another ground under which employees may seek reasonable accommodations from their employers. Title VII and the South Carolina Human Affairs Law prohibit discrimination based on religion and permit employees to ask for religious accommodation in the workplace.

Federal Guidance Is Clear

South Carolina mirrors federal guidance on most matters of employment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)’s guidance on religious accommodation in the workplace is very clear. It states that any form of harassment or unfavorable treatment based on religion is discrimination. It also specifies that such guidance does not only apply to members of ‘traditional’ religions. If a belief is both religious in nature and sincerely held, it must be respected, or at least not disrespected, in the workplace.

While this can be a difficult thing for some employers, as it is pending on subjective belief, it is imperative that an employer not simply react based on whether or not their own beliefs mesh with the employee’s. To do so is improper. According to the law, everyone has the right to worship as they see fit (within reason). Hiring or firing based on agreement with religious beliefs is flatly discriminatory, with very little room for palaver or discussion.

Reasonable Accommodations

Employees are entitled to reasonable religious accommodations in the workplace. The term reasonable implies that it puts only a minimal burden on the employer or other covered entity, and there are multiple types of accommodations that have been held to be reasonable. These include things like permitting days off shift changes on holy days, permitting the wearing of religious attire, or allowing brief moments to pray or otherwise fulfill religious obligations. Unless it can be shown that an employee’s religious accommodation will create an undue hardship for the employer—the same language used in the ADA—the law holds that the request should generally be granted.

The term ‘undue hardship’ is often debated, but both South Carolina and EEOC cases illustrate certain effects that will almost certainly get an accommodation branded as unreasonable. Namely, if it compromises workplace safety or efficiency or creates hardships or inequities for other employees, it may be considered unreasonable. This can be highly employer subjective. Take, for example, a company with 100 employees. Say two of its employees are Jewish. The company may grant their requests for Fridays off in order to attend Shabbat services. However, a 10-employee company with two Jewish employees may decline to do so, claiming that it is an undue burden because the company’s total staff is only ten. In such a case, calling the requests an undue burden would likely be upheld, because to grant them would be to take 20 percent of the available staff away on a day when the company plans to be open.

Seek Experienced Assistance

Generally, employers in the United States will be open to working with requests for religious accommodations in the workplace. However, there are always exceptions—some in bad faith and some in good faith who allege undue hardship. Either way, it can be helpful to discuss your issue with an attorney. The Charleston, SC employment law firm of Hitchcock & Potts can assist you with any questions you might have and suggest a path going forward.

Contact our office today to set up an initial consultation.

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