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What is the Definition of an “Undue Hardship” in a Religious Discrimination Lawsuit?

April 16th, 2024

Defining reasonable accommodation and undue hardship are necessary prerequisites to understanding religious accommodation laws.
Defining reasonable accommodation and undue hardship are necessary prerequisites to understanding religious accommodation laws.

As an American worker, you may be aware that your employer cannot discriminate against you for religious reasons. If you request an exemption to certain workplace requirements due to religious reasons, your employer may be legally obliged to respect your faith. The word “may” is very important in this context since US employers can avoid granting these exemptions if they experience “undue hardships” as a result. What exactly is the legal definition of an “undue hardship” in this context?

Defining Reasonable Accommodation

When an employer agrees to modify work duties or the work environment due to an employee’s faith, this is called a “reasonable accommodation.” This might include virtually anything that allows the employee to practice or observe their faith. The Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Civil Rights states that this should include schedule changes, leave for religious observances, dressing practices, grooming practices, and much more. 

The classic example is a hijab or turban. Although an employer might have specific rules regarding headwear in the workplace, they are generally expected to modify these rules for certain faiths that require specific headwear at all times. 

With all that said, the US Constitution states that employers can legally refuse to grant these accommodations if they would face “undue hardships” as a result. This is why it is so important to clearly define the phrase “undue hardship.” 

Defining Undue Hardship

An undue hardship occurs when an employer encounters significant costs or barriers when granting religious accommodation. In other words, granting a religious accommodation would cause them to lose money or waste time. 

That being said, not all additional costs and time-consuming activities qualify as undue hardships. If an employer loses a relatively minor sum in granting a religious accommodation, for example, this does not constitute an undue hardship. A company would have to lose a significant amount of money or waste a significant amount of time while attempting to grant a religious accommodation. 

The definition of an undue hardship is somewhat vague, and courts must examine each unique situation on a case-by-case basis. 

Examples of Undue Hardships

The classic example of an undue hardship is a worker who demands hours of paid prayer time each day. While other workers may be content to carry out their duties, this particular worker might be engaged in hours of prayer each day. As a result, the company would likely encounter a notable drop in productivity. Subsequently, they could argue that a different worker would be much more productive. They would likely be successful in claiming an “undue hardship,” – and this would allow them to fire the worker for religious reasons. 

Another undue hardship might compromise workplace safety. For example, a worker might refuse to wear certain protective gear because it interferes with their religious attire. However, the employer might then face not only the heightened risk of injuries (and costly workers’ comp claims) but also the risk of fines for safety violations. 

Keep Informed with the Universal Life Church

Each month, various cases test the nature of religious rights in this country. While the basis for many religious rights is the United States Constitution, there are still countless cases that question the exact nature of these rights. The Universal Life Church’s blog is focused on documenting the most noteworthy of these cases in an objective manner that can be easily understood by readers.

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