Employer Alert - To What Extent Do Employees Have the Right to be Accommodated with Respect to Their Religious Beliefs?

Employees refusing to do their job duties based upon religious beliefs have been a trending topic in the news recently.  For example, Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, gained national media attention when she refused to issue marriage licenses after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the right to marriage is guaranteed to same-couples by the Fourteenth Amendment. In the midst of the news stories surrounding the Kim Davis controversy, another employee filed a federal lawsuit based upon her employer placing her on administrative leave due to her religious beliefs inhibiting her ability to perform her job duties.  Charee Stanley, a Muslim flight attendant for ExpressJet Airlines, was recently placed on administrative leave after she refused to serve alcohol for religious reasons.  Stanley began her employment prior to converting to the Muslim faith.

Stanley asked her supervisor for a religious accommodation, i.e., having one of her colleagues serve the alcohol while she did another job duty.  The supervisor agreed.  The accommodation worked for a while, until one of her colleagues filed an internal complaint against Stanley claiming she was not doing her job because she refused to serve alcohol.  Subsequently, the airline revoked the religious accommodation and placed her on administrative leave without pay for 12 months - “after which her employment would be administratively terminated.”

Stanley is now seeking redress from the EEOC.  Stanley claims she was disciplined for following the direction of her employer and that her employer had no justification to revoke her religious accommodation.  Stanley’s position is that ExpressJet acknowledged serving alcohol was “not an essential duty or function of flight attendant” by granting the religious accommodation and the fact that the revoked the accommodation is in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

While employers should be mindful and knowledgeable about their duties when it comes to accommodating employees based on religious beliefs, employers also need to be aware of their rights.  Title VII provides that an employer must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and practices unless doing so would cause “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”  The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “undue hardship” means that an employer need not incur more than minimal costs in order to accommodate an employee’s religious practices.  The EEOC has interpreted “undue hardship” to mean that an employer can show that a requested accommodation causes it an undue hardship if accommodating an employee’s religious practices requires anything more than ordinary administrative costs, diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, causes coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work, or if the proposed accommodation conflicts with another law or regulation.

Accordingly, religion is not an automatic ticket employees can use to avoid certain job duties.  There are limitations and employers need to be aware of their rights under Title VII.

For more information on this topic, contact Stephanie Strickler at 312-334-3465 or sstrickler@messerstrickler.com.

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