by Ryan Houldin
CAIR-Philadelphia Staff Attorney
All American Muslims in the workforce should be aware that they have the right to request a religious accommodation at their work place. However, that right is far from absolute. Employers are required to engage in a good faith effort to accommodate your request, but that does not mean that they must grant your request.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that an employer must accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious belief unless such an accommodation would place an undue hardship on the employer. The definition of “undue hardship” is the crux of most religious accommodation lawsuits, and there is no precise meaning. Generally, if accommodating a religious request will negatively affect a company’s profit, courts will not require an employer to grant the accommodation. Pennsylvania courts have consistently ruled in favor of the employer if granting a religious accommodation would require altering work schedules, paying overtime to cover shifts, or otherwise place an economic burden on the company. However, there are some accommodation requests in which it is difficult for an employer to argue that granting the request would negatively impact the company’s bottom line, such as wearing a hijab at work or using lunch breaks to pray. Each case is fact specific and will depend on the circumstances of the company, the responsibilities of the employee, and the nature of the accommodation.
If the religious accommodation sought is time specific, i.e. Hajj, Eid, Ramadan, the best practice is to make the request as early as possible. By giving the company advanced notice it could weaken the company’s argument that granting the accommodation would have caused a hardship. For example, we received a call from an employee who requested off for Eid less than a week before the holiday. By that time, too many people had requested off that day and the employee’s request was denied. On Eid the employee called out from work, citing the religious holiday, which resulted in a suspension. The employer was within its right to suspend the employee for failure to follow their attendance policy. If the employee sued the company for failure to grant a religious accommodation, it is highly likely that a court would side with the employer because accommodating the employee’s request on such short notice would have required altering other workers’ shifts or paying overtime to cover the shift. Had the employee given more advanced notice it is likely that the company would have granted the request.
Determining when an employer is required to grant a religious accommodation request is difficult. If you were denied a religious accommodation, or you would like to make such a request, contact CAIR-Philadelphia to obtain a more in depth analysis of the law.