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Detroit, Mich. —April 18, 2014— With the religious holidays of Easter and Passover here, biblically-themed movies released in theaters and Pope Francis experiencing growing popularity, religious conversations are bound to enter the workplace, but employers are increasingly challenged in handling religious issues, according to Terry Bonnette, a partner at Detroit-based employment law firm Nemeth Law, P.C.
“There has been a 120% increase in the number of religious discrimination cases filed with the EEOC in the past 15 years, and a 46% increase in the number of cases filed within just the past seven years,” said Bonnette.
In March, the EEOC issued guidance to employers for managing requests for religious accommodation in the workplace, specifically as applied to dress and grooming guidelines. Given the spike in religious discrimination claims, as well as the new guidelines, employers should take the opportunity to review their policies on religious accommodation in the workplace to guard against religious discrimination claims.
“Religion as defined by the EEOC includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief,” said Bonnette. “Employers need to reasonably accommodate an employee or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice unless they can demonstrate that doing so would result in an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”
According to Bonnette, these guidelines have played out in several recent cases, notably regarding company dress codes and requests for extended time off.
In the 2013 case out of Indiana, Adeyeye v. Heartland Sweeteners, LLC, the employee requested several months of leave to attend his father’s funeral. The employer denied the request and later discharged the employee when he missed several weeks of work to attend the funeral. In finding that the employer failed to accommodate Mr. Adeyeye’s request for religious accommodation, the court noted that the employer should have realized the religious nature of the request when the employee used words such as ‘funeral ceremony’, and ‘funeral rite’ and informed the employer that he would be required to make an animal sacrifice.
Conversely, in the 2013 case of the EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., the court found that another employer did not discriminate on the basis of religion when it refused to hire a woman who was wearing an hajib at a job interview. The court opined that testimony showed there could be any number of reasons other than religion that a woman might wear an hajib. The court noted that an employer need not guess or surmise from the circumstances that a particular practice is based on religion and that an employee might require an accommodation for it.
“As a general rule, an employer meets it obligation to accommodate by offering any reasonable accommodation; it need not necessarily be the exact accommodation requested by the employee,” said Bonnette. “In striking a balance between what the employee wants and what the employer is required to provide, courts charge both parties with the duty to engage in an interactive process to resolve the conflicts.”
The next installment of Nemeth Law’s Raising the Bar series on June 5, 2014 will deal exclusively with religion in the workplace. To register or learn more, visit the Nemeth Law website.
About Nemeth Law, P.C.
Nemeth Law specializes in employment litigation, traditional labor law and management consultation for private and public sector employers. It is the largest woman-owned law firm in Michigan to exclusively represent management in the prevention, resolution and litigation of labor and employment disputes.