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The basics of religious accommodation in employment

The subject of religious freedom in America has been hotly debated throughout our country's history, and that debate continues today. Thankfully, the United States has largely managed to uphold religious liberty in its laws, including its employment laws.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are prohibited from discriminating against workers or job candidates based on religion. Additionally, employers must provide religious accommodations to employees when requested unless such accommodations would present an "undue hardship."

For better and worse, the concept of undue hardship is not clearly defined in the law. While this ambiguity can cause disagreements and confusion, it also allows specific requests and their consequences to be considered in context of each job.

As an example, consider the following scenario: A female employee in a restaurant or retail establishment asks to only serve female customers and to never be required to interact with male customers. There are certain work environments where this request could reasonably be accommodated. But in retail and restaurant industries, such an accommodation would likely create an undue hardship for employers (and other employees).

While each request must be considered in light of the job, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does offer some guidelines. An accommodation request might pose an undue hardship if:

  • It conflicts with a law or regulation
  • It poses a hazard or impairs workplace safety
  • The company would incur higher costs than their ordinary administrative expenses
  • It would diminish efficiency in other jobs
  • It would require other employees to take on more than their fair share of burdensome or hazardous work
  • Accommodating that employee would infringe on the job rights or benefits of other employees

Although these guidelines are helpful, they still won't address every case. That's why it's important for employers and employees to keep open lines of communication when discussing religious accommodations. And remember: It never hurts to seek guidance from an experienced employment law attorney.

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