Requests for religious accommodations at work can involve a wide range of issues including schedule changes, relief from weekend or overtime work, breaks to accommodate prayer or other religious practices, dress code accommodations and even tattoos. Religious accommodations must be granted if they are “reasonable.” Currently employers have a pretty low hurdle to cross when arguing that a requested accommodation is not reasonable. The U.S. Supreme Court is sending signals that hurdle may become higher.
In religious accommodation cases, just like disability accommodation cases, to show that a requested accommodation is unreasonable an employer must show it will cause an undue burden to the business. However the phrase “undue burden” has been interpreted much more narrowly in religion cases than in disability cases. To show that requests for religious accommodation will cause an undue burden, an employer must show only that it will cause some minimal disruption to the business. This relatively low burden has been in place since one of the earliest U.S. Supreme Court cases on religious accommodations, TWA v. Hardison. The current Supreme Court is considering whether to take up a religious accommodation case filed against Walgreens. The case involves an employee’s request for relief from Saturday work due to religious observances. The Court recently asked for input from the U.S. Department of Justice on the case. That, plus indications in some earlier decisions by this Court, suggest the Court may be ready to make a change in the way religious accommodation cases are decided. Specifically, the Court may be ready to impose on employers a more heavy burden to show significant harm to the business as a basis for denying a requested accommodation.
The current political climate may also make the Court more inclined to protect asserted religious freedom. That might result in a decision strengthening the religious accommodation rights of employees, even though a majority of the Court’s current Justices usually tend to favor business rights.
A word of caution
Even considering the current relatively low burden on employers for denying accommodation requests, companies are wise to approach religious accommodation requests deliberately and cautiously. Denying a request has to be supportable by facts showing there will be some harm to the business if the request is granted. Also, there are not only legal risks to consider. There may be employee relations and even public relations implications where religious accommodation requests are denied.