Religious Discrimination and Accommodation

cadleLast week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced that it had filed a lawsuit against United Cellular, Inc., of Alabama. The lawsuit claims that United Cellular discriminated against Charles Embry, a Seventh-Day Adventist, by scheduling him to work on his Sabbath day and then firing him when he didn’t show up for work. During his initial job interview, Embry told United Cellular that his religious beliefs prohibited him from working from sundown on Friday through sundown on Saturday.

Religion is unique among the characteristics protected by Title VII, in that it is not only a trait but also a system of beliefs that may require believers to engage in certain practices at work. Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to allow employees to practice their faiths, unless doing so would create an undue hardship. Common accommodations include schedule changes, exceptions to grooming or dress codes, and breaks or time off for prayer and religious observances.

Religious discrimination can be a tricky issue for employers, who are required both to disregard religion as a trait in making employment decisions and to take religion into account as a practice in providing accommodations. Especially difficult is figuring out whether and how to accommodate an employee whose religion requires public profession of faith or proselytizing, especially if other employees or customers would prefer not to be the audience.

Recognizing this, the EEOC in 2008 issued policy guidance and a question and answer series on “how to balance the needs of individuals in a diverse religious climate.” Apparently, however some questions remain: The number of charges filed with the EEOC alleging religious discrimination has more than doubled in the past 15 years, while total charges filed have increased by only 25% in the same timeframe.

In response to frequent questions and search interest in this topic, we’ve put together a Religious Discrimination page, with basic information and answers to common questions about discrimination and workplace accommodations.