Did employee ask for too much religious accommodation?

by on August 29, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Cafe
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Based on the facts presented in the scenario below, how do you think the court ruled on this employment-law case?

“I don’t have anything against your religion,” supervisor Bob Hardy told software trainer Clarice McKenna. “I don’t attend church myself, but I have no problem with churchgoers. What I do have a problem with are the demands for time off you’ve been making ever since you started going to that new church. It’s hard for me to make the schedule work when you refuse to work Saturdays. As you know, that’s the day a lot of our clients like to do off-site training for their IT staff.”

“You make it sound like I’m not willing to do my part around here,” Clarice said. “That’s not true. But I can’t work on our sabbath without violating my beliefs.”

Holy days
“So you’ve explained,” Bob said. “But on top of that, now you want five extra days off this month because of some kind of saints’ days?”

“No, they’re called holy days,” Clarice said. “It’s our Feast of the Tabernacles.”

“Whatever,” Bob said with a dismissive wave of the hand. “Look, we’ve tried to cover for you by sending a single trainer to Saturday sessions. But we really need two trainers there to give the customers’ people one-to-one attention. I’m afraid customers are going to start thinking they’re not getting their money’s worth.”

“I want to make this work,” Clarice said. “What if I agreed to relinquish a part of my pay equal to the time I need off for my faith observances? That way you could hire a part-timer to fill in for me.”

“Not practical,” Bob said brusquely. “Too hard to find and schedule part-timers, plus how could you get by if you took a big hit to your salary? Sooner or later, you’d start looking for a new job.”

The dispute over Clarice’s religiously motivated absences eventually came to a head, and the company fired her. She sued for religious discrimination.

The employer asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on grounds that accommodating Clarice would cause the company undue hardship. Did it win?

The ruling
No. The company failed to get the lawsuit thrown out of court.

The judge said Bob made three untested assumptions about:

  • the practicality of finding a part-timer to fill in for Clarice.
  • the amount of pay she would have to surrender to free up salary budget to pay a part-timer.
  • the idea that customers would complain about getting only one trainer.

So, the judge said, the issue of whether the company really would suffer undue hardship had to go to a jury trial. And juries usually lean toward employees, not employers.

Takeaway: It’s hard to prove that accommodating an employee’s sincere religious beliefs will cause undue hardship for the business. And so supervisors should make every effort to find an accommodation, bringing HR in if the situation proves hard to resolve.

photo credit: Max Wolfe

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