Religion Discrimination

June 14, 2017

Some studies have counted over 124 different religions practiced in the United States and these religions range from only 10 adherents to tens of millions.  When responding to requests for accommodation for religious practices, though, the size of the religion is irrelevant. The wrong answer to the employee who is a member of a 10-member tribe can create as much liability as the wrong answer to an adherent of a major religion.

Employers are constantly told that they can avoid discrimination claims by treating similar situations the same. Religion is different. When addressing religious accommodation requests, the employee is basically saying, “I don’t want to be treated the same as other employees; I have a good reason for being treated differently than any other employee in the workplace.”  In some cases, the employer is required to provide an accommodation and treat the employee differently. 

Some accommodation requests are relatively benign and easy to address; some are more strident or difficult: 

  • What are the employer’s obligations to applicants who refuse to provide a social security number based on sincerely-held beliefs that the social security number represents the sign of the beast? Yeager v. FirstEnergy Generation Corp., 777 F.3d 362 (6th Cir. 2015).
  • Or, how does the service industry employer respond to the employee who requests Easter Sunday off from work so the employee can spend Easter home, sharing meals and praying with the family, and going on an Easter egg hunt. Missing work for an Easter egg hunt; isn’t that simply a personal preference or is it a deeply held religious belief? Jiglov v. The Hotel Peabody, 719 F.Supp.2d 918 (W.D. Tenn. 2010).

The employer must correctly answer the question to avoid liability.  Guessing is not an option.

Contributed by Donald Scharg of Bodman law firm.

View the on-demand webinar “Me in the Workplace: Religion, Appearance & Criminal Background” with Don.