How far must employers go to accommodate religious beliefs?

By: Judy Kneiszel

Publication: Employment Law & Regulatory Alert

Date Posted: 07/14/2021

Accommodate religious beliefs in the workplace

In a recent case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit decided that an employer did not violate Title VII when it withdrew a job offer after the applicant reported being unable to work between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday for religious reasons.

The story

A major retailer initially offered Edward a position as a full-time assistant manager.

After the offer was extended, Edward revealed that, as a Seventh Day Adventist, he could not work between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.

That disclosure created a problem.

The store where Edward would have worked never closes and is busy on the weekends.

There were eight assistant manager positions but granting Edward’s request for that time off would have caused the other seven to work more weekends. That was something they did not want to do.

In addition, the store rotated the managers through different schedules, and liked all the managers to get experience in all departments. Accommodating Edward’s request would make that difficult because not all store departments are open all the time.

The retailer decided that Edward asked for too much when he sought to avoid working between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.

It invited him to apply for an hourly management position, which paid less but was not subject to the rotating schedule. Edward declined the invitation.

The lawsuit

The Equal Employment Opportunity (EEOC) eventually sued the retailer, accusing it of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by not doing enough to accommodate Edward’s request. A lower court ruled for the retailer, and the agency appealed.

The 7th Circuit Court affirmed the ruling.

The EEOC said the retailer could have given Edward the job and let him trade shifts with other managers. But Title VII puts the burden of accommodation on employers and not on other workers, the appeals court explained.

The agency also said the retailer could have simply assigned Edward to a schedule that never included Fridays or Saturdays. But that too would put an added burden on other workers instead of the employer, the court reasoned.

More than a slight burden

If Edward became a specialist who was skilled only in some departments, “more than a slight burden” would be placed on the retailer when Edward went on vacation or took sick leave, the appeals court added.

In addition, Title VII did not require the retailer to grant an accommodation that would leave it short-staffed, the appeals court ruled.

The majority referred to Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (U.S. 1977). In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that “Title VII does not require an employer to offer an ‘accommodation’ that comes at the expense of other workers.” It also said any accommodation resulting in more than a de minimis cost to the employer is not owed.

The decision for the retailer was therefore affirmed.

One dissenting opinion

A dissenting judge questioned whether the retailer did enough to explore ways to accommodate Edward’s religious beliefs. Specifically, the dissenting judge suggested that the store should have gathered the entire managerial staff and gauged their willingness to shuffle their schedules to accommodate Edward’s request.

“[T]he duty to reasonably accommodate,” the dissenting judge wrote, “entails an obligation to look at matters with fresh eyes and to separate what is necessary from what, to date, has been customary.”

A jury could find that the retailer needed to do more, the judge said.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Walmart Stores East, L.P., 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 20-1419, March, 31, 2021

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It applies to employers with 15 or more employees.

About the author
Judy Kneiszel - Human Resources Editor

Judy is an Associate Editor on the Human Resources Publishing Team and she specializes in issues such as recruiting and hiring, onboarding and training, employee communication and discipline, managing problems, team building, inclusion, employee retention, and labor relations

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