Roadmap to Religious Accommodations in the Workplace

By Jonathan Clark

In EEOC v. Abercrombie and Fitch Stores, Inc., argued before the United States Supreme Court in February, 17-year-old Samantha Elauf applied to work as a sales representative at Abercrombie.  During the interview, she wore a traditional Muslim headscarf but said nothing about her faith.  Abercrombie did not hire Ms. Elauf because her headscarf violated the company’s “Look Policy,” but denied knowing that the garment was, in fact, religious.

While we await the Supreme Court’s decision as to whether Abercrombie’s actions violated the religious discrimination prohibitions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this case presents an opportunity to review the basic obligations of employers concerning religious accommodations, which may include clothing, in the workplace.

Title VII prohibits discrimination, harassment, and retaliation based on an employee’s religion. “Religious belief” is defined as a belief that is both “religious” in the employee’s own view and sincerely held by the employee. Thus, the law’s protection extends beyond mainstream religions. Title VII also requires employers to “reasonably accommodate” religious beliefs, practices, and observances unless “undue hardship,” meaning more than a minimal effort or expense, would result.

The law requires employers to accommodate only sincerely held religious beliefs that conflict with work requirements.  Although courts rarely question the sincerity or religiosity of a particular belief, it is important to remember that Title VII was intended only to protect individuals with sincere religious beliefs, and therefore does not apply to requirements of personal preference rooted on non-theological grounds, such as politics, culture, or heritage.

As long as an employer has reasonably accommodated an employee’s religious needs, the employer does not need to consider or adopt an employee’s own alternative or suggested accommodation—even if it is preferred by the employee.  Examples of reasonable accommodations vary, but have included such things as scheduling changes, modification of certain job duties, use of private company spaces for prayer, and excused absences from employer programs that include conflicting religious expression. 

If the accommodation requested requires anything more than ordinary administrative costs, diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employee’s job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, or conflicts with other laws or regulations, it is likely an undue hardship.  Examples of possible undue hardships may include training part-time employees at substantial cost to cover for another employee who cannot work on Saturdays or paying premium or overtime costs to accommodate the religious needs of employees.

Note: listen to a previous podcast on this matter here.