Dear Professor: Accommodating religious preferences in the workplace

Posted by Alexis Menard on December 10, 2019 at 12:55 pm

Dear Professor:

Q: I am an employer of 110 employees in a retail setting. How far do I have to go to accommodate religious preferences?

A: Religion is one of the five protected classes under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, along with race, sex and national origin.  Employers cannot discriminate against employees or applicants on the basis of being a member of one or more of the five classes.  The law applies to employers of more than 15 employees, including government employers.

Typically, religious bias arises when an employee’s work schedule conflicts with a religious observance or appearance requirements.  But frequently the type of work creates a conflict, such as anti-abortion nurses required to assist in abortions.  Further, pejorative statements by other employees or supervisors can form a basis for a religious discrimination claim.

An employer is required to accommodate religion unless it causes an undue hardship on the employer. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the accommodation does not have to involve more than minimal expense or operational problems.  For example, an employer does not have to incur shift or overtime premiums to cover for an employee’s religious request or change seniority or require others to work a shift to accommodate. On the other hand, an employer would have to allow employees doing the same work to voluntarily switch shifts.

 (If you have a question of general interest in any area of business, send your inquiry to fcullari@umich.edu.  An answer will be posted in the immediate subsequent issue. Individual advice is not offered in this forum.  The opinion is that of the professor answering your question and not necessarily that of SOM or UM.)