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Religion in the Workplace – A Delicate Balancing Act

Posted on December 13, 2012

Recently I had a series of inquires about the role of religion in the workplace – is an employer required to give employees time off for an important religious holiday?  And, does a company’s web posting stating that its business ethics are guided by Christian beliefs discriminate against non-Christian candidates?

The landscape of religious discrimination and religious accommodation highlights the intersection of two trends in the American workplace – the desire for employees to practice their religious beliefs during work time and the need for employers to operate their business as they see fit.

To prove religious discrimination, whether protected by federal or California laws, requires an employee to demonstrate that (1) the employee has a bona fide religious belief which conflicts with their job duties, (2) the employee informed the employer of the conflict (or in California, the employer is aware of the religious beliefs), and (3) the employer took an adverse employment action because of the employee’s inability to fulfill the job duties required of them.  Courts generally will defer to the employee’s claim of a strongly held religious belief so long as it is sincere and even if the particular religious practice is not actually a requirement of the employee’s religion.

A thornier situation arises when the employee seeks a reasonable accommodation to practice their religious beliefs.  Employers are obligated to provide the accommodation so long as it does not cause an “undue hardship” – essentially a balance between the nature and cost of the accommodation with the employer’s overall financial resources and the impact on operation of the company’s business.

Courts have upheld employer’s claims of an “undue hardship” where, for example, the employer prohibited employees from proselytizing at work, the employer refused to alter its ‘no facial jewelry’ policy, or the employer prohibited employees from displaying certain religious symbols in the workplace.  At the same time, courts have ruled against employer’s undue hardship claims where employees requested time off for religious holidays, shifting of schedules, temporary or permanent transfers, or providing break areas for religious practices.  Further, employers cannot compel employees to observe religious practices which conflict with the employee’s own religious practices.

So in answering the question first presented above – does a private employer who openly advertises that their business ethics are informed by and based on Christian principles engage in a type of religious discrimination?  The short answer is probably no.  On the surface, an employer is free to seek out any individuals who believe in the nature of its business and who would be drawn to the strong Christian underpinnings of its owners.  But in practice, the employer cannot inquire about the candidate’s religious beliefs, cannot use religion as a hiring litmus test, cannot refuse to hire prospective candidates because of the employee’s religious beliefs, and cannot require employees to conform to the employer’s religious beliefs.

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