Take Employee Requests for Religious Accommodation Seriously

Jan 16, 2024

By Frank J. Godfrey III

Employers have addressed many employment discrimination challenges in recent years. For example, the BLM protests brought a renewed focus on racial discrimination in the workplace. This renewed focus, in turn, gave rise to diversity, equity and inclusion policies and procedures that were intended to address and rectify the long-term economic effects of racial discrimination. 

Until recently, religious discrimination was not as widely discussed, and was less frequently addressed in the workforce. That is, until quite recently. Many employers addressed – often for the first time – requests for religious accommodations in the context of workplace Covid vaccination mandates. The pandemic is over, but the issue of religion in the workforce remains. In fact, complaints of religious discrimination in the employment context are increasing. 

For example, the US Supreme Court recently addressed a case regarding an employee’s request for a religious accommodation in the workplace, unrelated to vaccinations and Covid. In short, the employee requested an accommodation to not be required to work on his Sabbath day. The Court ruled unanimously that an employer cannot deny an employee’s request for a religious accommodation unless it can prove that doing so would result in substantial hardship to the employer. This is a different legal standard than the previous one, which only required employers to grant religious accommodations to employees if the cost to the employer in doing so was minimal. The Court also ruled in a separate “religious inclusion” case that a person’s free speech rights took precedence over the State of Colorado’s discrimination laws. While it was not an employment-related decision, this case underscores the renewed interest in protecting citizen’s religious liberty interests. 

These legal decisions and trends mean that employers should take very seriously an employee’s request for a religious accommodation. This is not difficult. The starting point is to simply have a good faith conversation with the employee about their request. Doing so helps fulfill the employer’s legal requirements as to the interactive process and creates important documentation about the company’s engagement with its employee regarding a legally-protected status. It also sends a positive, inclusive message about the organization’s attempts to include consideration to its employees about matters many consider fundamental and important.