goatsTitle VII gives employees the right to reasonable workplace accommodations to allow them to practice their religious beliefs. Unless accommodating an employee’s religion would pose an undue hardship, an employer must allow an employee to attend religious rites or ceremonies, honor a Sabbath, wear religious garb, or otherwise follow the tenets of his or her faith. This might require changes to work schedules, uniform rules, or procedures for requesting for time off, but Congress has determined that religious practice is sufficiently important to impose these minor burdens on employers. (For more information — and answers to commonly asked questions — about religious discrimination and accommodation, check out our Religious Discrimination page.)

So far, so good. But an employer can grant an accommodation only if it knows about the employee’s need for one. That’s why the burden of requesting an accommodation in the first place — and providing enough information so the employer knows the request is religious in nature — falls on the employee. As is true of most employment laws that require employee notice, no “magic words” are required. An employee need not say explicitly, “I am requesting a religious accommodation pursuant to Title VII.” On the other hand, the employee has to provide enough information to let the employer know that (1) the employee needs an exception or change to the usual rules, and (2) that need arises from a religious belief.

An interesting case from the federal Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit shows how tricky this can get when the employee’s religious beliefs are not mainstream or known to the employer. An employee, Sikuru Adeyeye, asked for five weeks of unpaid leave to attend his father’s funeral ceremony in Nigeria. His employer, Heartland Sweeteners, said no. Adeyeye then asked for three weeks of unpaid leave along with a week of vacation he had already earned. He left to attend the funeral, and was fired upon his return for violating the company’s attendance policy.

Adeyeye sued, claiming that the company failed to grant him a religious accommodation. The company argued that it didn’t know his request for time off had a religious basis. The Appeals Court found in Adeyeye’s favor on the notice issue, finding that the language he used in his written requests for time off was enough to clue the company in. Here’s what the first note said:

I hereby request for five weeks leave in order to attend funeral ceremony of my father. This is very important for me to be there in order to participate in the funeral rite according to our custom and tradition. The ceremony usually cover from three to four weeks and is two weeks after the burial, there is certain rite[s] that all of the children must participate. And after the third week, my mother will not come out until after one month when I have to be there to encourage her, and I have to [k]ill five goats, then she can now come out. This is done compulsory for the children so that the death will not come or take away any of the children’s life. I will appreciate if this request is approved.

Adeyeye said his request was based on “custom and tradition,” not religion. Weighing heavily on the other side of the balance: ritual slaughter of goats! The Court found that the goats, possibility of spiritual death if the ritual was not followed, and mention of rites and ceremonies was sufficient to put the company on notice.

Hat tip: Triggering the Duty of Religious Accommodation, over on Workplace Prof blog, which compares this case to yet another controversy over Abercrombie & Fitch’s “Look Policy,” this time involving an applicant who was denied a job after she showed up for an interview wearing a headscarf.