Workplace religious accommodation best not left to a wing and a prayer

Mar 18, 2024

By Frank J. Godfrey III

It’s 2024 and the world has continued to change in different ways. One of those changes involves the interplay between religion and employment.

An increasing number of employees have become more comfortable discussing personal matters such as religion in the workplace. This is not surprising given the ongoing employee-centric focus many employers have established in their particular business culture. Now more than ever, employees openly discuss in their workplace discrimination, equity, politics, race, religion and other topics that were more likely to be expressed in private conversations a mere few years ago.

And with respect to religion, there has been an increase in the number of employees now seeking religious accommodation in the workplace. Wise employers understand religious discrimination is to be avoided and that reasonable accommodations should be granted to qualified individuals.

The initial question to determine is whether the employee qualifies for a reasonable religious accommodation that is based on their sincerely held religious beliefs. The answer is found in the same procedure employers use to determine employee qualification for reasonable disability-related accommodations: the interactive process.

That is, the employer should ask a few initial, basic questions about what the employee is actually requesting. Are they asking for a specific day off as it is their day of worship? Do they need an additional break during their shift for purposes of prayer? Do they need a specific day off from work because their religion prohibits work on their day of worship? These questions will go a long way in helping both parties understand the important “what and why” components of the employee’s request. These understandings are critical in formulating a response to the employee and documenting the interactive process.

It is important to keep in mind that an employee’s religious beliefs are legally protected. Employers must take care to ensure they do not act or respond in a way that can lead to allegations of religious discrimination. For example, employers cannot require the equivalent of a doctor’s note from the employee’s spiritual advisor. Nor can the employer require proof of membership in a specific religion, faith or church. Employers should also be aware that some religious beliefs and practices are related to an employee’s race or ethnicity both of which are also afforded legal protections.

The lesson is to take these requests seriously, respond promptly and proceed with caution. When possible, reasonable accommodations should be provided. When uncertain, businesses should not make decisions without legal guidance. Liability exposure is a reality. Courts are increasingly sympathetic to individuals alleging religious discrimination.