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A Guide to Religious Accommodation

September 30th, 2015

The difference between a religious accommodation in the workplace, and the principles of religious freedom as protected by the U.S. Constitution are often lost on many individuals who confuse the two ideas.  It is important to be able to distinguish between these two principles before entering into any dialogue in the workplace.religious accomodation

Religious Accommodations in the Workplace

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protect individuals from discrimination based on their religion in the workplace, among other protections.  As it relates to religion, employees have the right pursuant to this law to request accommodations (changes to rules or policies) for their “sincerely held religious beliefs or practices.”  The exact meaning of this phrase as it relates to a request has been the subject of countless complaints in administrative and higher courts across the country.  The Supreme Court has recently discussed the sincerity issue in a case involving the beliefs of officers of a major corporation.  While the dissent argued that the courts should avoid questioning the validity of a person’s beliefs, the majority took a different approach.  

Essentially, as explained in more detail in a 2014 Stanford Law Review article, courts in the United States have traditionally and will likely continue to approach the issue with an eye toward fraud prevention.  If an employee states that he or she requires a religious accommodation — for example, no Saturday shifts — then the court would likely inquire as to the individual’s practices and religious activities on Saturdays.

Constitutional Protections

The U.S. Constitution provides a different kind of protection for religious activities.  The first amendment’s free exercise clause prohibits discrimination by the government based on a person’s religion.  However, a major difference between the first amendment’s protections and the statutory protections of Title VII is that the former does not have any mandates requiring the government to provide a religious individual with a religious accommodation.  

To the contrary, the protections offered by the free exercise clause extend primarily to an individual’s ability and right to believe whatever he or she wishes.  However, the ability to actually carry out those beliefs by practicing them is limited by numerous factors.  First and foremost, a person cannot take an action, even under religious guise, if it involves harm to another person or violation of a law, as would be the case for human sacrifice or illegal drug use.  Even the last example, however, is not without exception.  In very limited circumstances, illegal drug use may be authorized pursuant to religious practice.  However, this freedom still does not allow the individual to use illegal drugs in a manner that may harm others, such as in the workplace.

Quest for Knowledge

It is very common for questions surrounding religious accommodations and freedoms to make their way through administrative courts as well as higher courts.  It is because the analysis that must occur is so fact specific and tailored to an individual’s personal religious beliefs that these cases become complex.  If you have questions about the state of religion in the United States, check back with Universal Life Church Case Law as we will continue to track and monitor any case affecting religious protections of citizens across the country.

Photo Credit: Diacritical via Compfight cc

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