Not all “reasonable accommodations” are created equal. Both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require employers to “reasonably accommodate” employees. Title VII requires reasonable accommodation of an employee’s religious beliefs and practices and the ADA requires reasonable accommodation of an employee’s disabilities. Despite the use of the same phrase in both laws, they have very different meanings because of what is considered unreasonable according to these laws. Under Title VII, a religious accommodation is considered unreasonable (or an “undue hardship”) for the employer, if it creates “more than de minimis” cost or burden for the employer. Just as it sounds, the term “de minimis” is simply Latin for “of minimal importance” or “trivial.” By contrast, an undue hardship under the ADA is defined as “significant difficulty or expense.” In other words, there are many situations where an employer can deny a religious accommodation without violating Title VII. Nevertheless, employers need to understand how to analyze employee requests for religious accommodation to avoid possible religious discrimination claims.
Courts employ a two-step analysis in evaluating claims of religious discrimination. First, an employee must be able to demonstrate that: 1) he/she holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement; 2) he/she has informed the employer of the conflict; and 3) he/she was discharged or otherwise penalized for failing to comply with the conflicting employment requirement. Assuming that this first step is satisfied, the burden then shifts to the employer to show that it could not accommodate the employee without undue hardship in the conduct of its business.
Applying this two-step analysis, an employer’s obligation to reasonably accommodate religious beliefs starts with a threshold determination as to whether the employee is requesting the accommodation because of a “sincerely held” belief or whether in the alternative, the request is actually based on a personal preference. For example, an employee may request to be relieved of all duties on Saturdays for religious reasons. If this is simply because the employee would prefer to attend services on Saturday, as opposed to a sincerely held belief that Saturday is the Sabbath day, then it is a preference and may not need to be accommodated. This is why it is a good idea to request additional information from an employee requesting a religious accommodation in order to evaluate whether his/her conduct is consistent with a sincerely-held belief.
Assuming that the employee’s request for accommodation is based on a sincerely-held belief, an employer’s analysis must turn to whether the proposed accommodation imposes more than a de minimis cost or burden for the employer. Factors to be considered are “the identifiable cost in relation to the size and operating costs of the employer, and the number of individuals who will in fact need a particular accommodation.” For example, courts have found undue hardship where the accommodation diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, or causes co-workers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work. Ultimately, the determination of whether a proposed accommodation would pose an undue hardship is based on concrete, fact-specific considerations.