Recent federal cases demonstrate the importance of engaging in the interactive process when an employee requests a religious accommodation. Title VII and similar state and local laws not only prohibit religious discrimination in the workplace, but also require that employers make reasonable accommodations for an employee's sincerely held religious beliefs and practices if doing so would not create an undue hardship. Undue hardship is generally defined as more than a de minimis (nominal or minimal) cost or expense. As part of an employer's obligation to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs, it is best practice for an employer to carefully consider all religious accommodation requests by engaging in the interactive process. As part of the interactive process, the employer and employee should discuss potential accommodations and how the conflict between work and religious observance may be eliminated. However, an employer is not obligated to fulfill an employee's request for a religious accommodation if the request is not reasonable or causes an undue burden.
In Latice Porter v. City of Chicago, +700 F.3d 944 (7th Cir. 2012),the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a religious discrimination claim by Latice Porter (Porter), a senior data entry specialist, against the City of Chicago Police Department (City) because the City had complied with Title VII by engaging in the interactive process and offering Porter a reasonable accommodation. When Porter, an observant Christian, objected to working a Sunday morning shift because she wanted to attend church, her request for a shift change was granted. However, due to the City's business needs, her supervisor reassigned Porter to a Sunday morning shift and advised her that she would be granted an accommodation as soon as an opening in the alternative schedule opened up. When the City offered Porter a Sunday evening shift with the same pay and benefits and that did not conflict with her Sunday morning church services, she refused the offer and failed to show up for work because she wanted all of Sunday off as an accommodation. The court reasoned that the City had complied with Title VII by providing Porter with an accommodation that eliminated the conflict between work and religious observance and that it was not required to grant Porter's requested and preferred accommodation because doing so would cause an undue burden on the City.
Similarly, in EEOC v. Thompson Contracting, Grading, Paving, and Utilities, Inc., No. 11-1897, +2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 25635, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a religious discrimination claim brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that Thompson Contracting (Thompson) failed to accommodate the request of Banayah Yisrael (Yisrael), a Jewish dump truck driver, to not work on Saturdays so that he may observe the Jewish Sabbath. Although the EEOC proposed three accommodations, the court determined that the proposed accommodations - hiring a substitute hourly contract driver, creating a pool of substitute drivers from current employees in other positions, and transferring the employee to a different position - were unreasonable because they placed an undue burden and a high cost on the employer. Thompson was not liable for religious discrimination because granting the requested accommodations would result in an undue burden on the employer's business operations.
Advice for Employers
Taken together, these cases highlight the importance of the interactive process and handling requests for religious accommodation. An employer may be able to avoid liability for religious discrimination if it can show that it carefully considered the employee's request and engaged in the interactive process by communicating with the employee and exploring accommodations that eliminate the conflict between work and religious observances. However, as demonstrated above, an employer is not obligated to grant the employee's preferred or requested accommodation if doing so would cause an undue burden on the employer. An employer will fulfill its duty under Title VII and similar state and local laws by showing that it responded in good faith to an employee's request, considered all possible options and attempted to offer a solution to resolve the conflict between the employee's religious practices and work obligations.
Employee Management > EEO - Discrimination
Religious Accommodation Policy
How to Handle an Employee's Request for Religious Accommodation
How to Prevent Religious Discrimination
Religious Accommodation Evaluation Form
Religious Accommodation Response Form
Religious Accommodation Request and Action Form