Dear Evil Skippy:
One of my employees has used up all of his paid leave benefits, but wants to have all day off on Good Friday to attend religious services. He says it is required by his religion and when I did not say yes right away, he added that employers have to allow employees time off for religious observances. The problem is that I don’t think this guy really goes to church – ever. Do I have to give him the day off?
Where does this guy go to church? Bora Bora? Wherever it is, it must be a long trip if he wants the whole day off. Either that or it is a really long service.
Call my cynical, but it sounds like this fellow is trying to pull a fast one. Tell him to take Friday off, as well as next Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday . . .
– Evil Skippy
Whoa, ES. You might be right, but employers should not implement your “Fire first, ask questions later” approach. Federal laws (and the laws in many states and local jurisdictions) prevent religious discrimination. They also require a reasonable accommodation of employees’ religious beliefs. A thorough summary of the federal law can be found at this link – it should answer most questions.
In general, employers must reasonably accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief or observance conflicts with a work requirement (unless doing so would pose an undue hardship on the employer). However, the employer does not have to simply say yes to every employee request. The employer may need to ask for information about the observance (such as time, place and duration) in order to determine whether accommodation can be granted without posing an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business. At a minimum, you should ask for this information because it seems very odd that your employee wants the whole day off. I am no expert, but I think Good Friday services are customarily held at noon or in the evening. Many urban churches advertise services that workers can attend during their lunch break.
In addition, federal law (Title VII) requires employers to accommodate only those religious beliefs that are religious and “sincerely held.” If an employer doubts the employee’s sincerity, it is entitled to make a limited inquiry about the facts and circumstances behind the employee’s request. The EEOC recognizes that an employee’s request might be undermined by factors such as:
- Whether the employee has behaved in a manner markedly inconsistent with the professed belief;
- Whether the accommodation sought is a particularly desirable benefit that is likely to be sought for non-religious reasons;
- Whether the timing of the request renders it suspect (e.g., it follows an earlier request by the employee for the same benefit for non-religious) reasons); and
- Whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.
Keep in mind that even though prior inconsistent conduct is relevant to the question of sincerity, an individual’s beliefs – or degree of adherence – may change over time. An employee’s newly adopted or inconsistently observed religious practice may nevertheless be sincerely held.
Your case may not be too complicated. Your employee asked for a full day off, so ask him when the service will be held and how long it is scheduled to last. That alone may limit any accommodation requirement to an extended lunch break. If the employee insists that he needs the entire day, ask where the service will be held and ask for verification that the service is indeed a marathon one. (This could be accomplished by a flyer or notice or call to the church’s main office).
Because your employee’s request might create a legal obligation to accommodate him – please note that I said “might” – if you have any doubts about how to proceed after your initial questions, it’s probably time for specific legal advice for your actual situation. In any case and if you have not already done so, let your manager and Human Resources department know about your employee’s request.
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