The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency that looks into and fights against workplace discrimination. It recently sided with an employee who complained that her employer refused to grant her request to take Sundays off to go to church, and later fired her.
The employee’s request was initially granted by the company. However, at some point it refused to continue accommodating the employee’s requests for additional Sundays off, and then terminated her. She filed a complaint with the EEOC.
The EEOC then filed a lawsuit against the employer, American Medical Response of Tennessee, Inc. (AMR) for damages and injunctive relief on behalf of the employee. That lawsuit was recently settled when AMR agreed to a consent decree—an agreed-to court judgment against it—that resulted in a $40,000 payment to the employee and a requirement that the company “develop and implement a religious accommodation policy and train its employees, including human resources and management personnel on the religious accommodation requirements under Title VII.”
What exactly is a “religious accommodation under Title VII?”
Title VII is a section of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 that focuses on the issue of discrimination in the workplace. It makes it an “unlawful employment practice” for a certain size employer (of 15+ employees) to discriminate on the basis of an employee’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
The law also contains a couple additional provisions that benefit religious organizations and individuals.
First, the law exempts—in Section 702—religious organizations (e.g., a church or a religious nonprofit) from the prohibition against discriminating on the basis of religion. That allows a Catholic, Protestant or any other type of denominational or religious organization or educational institution to hire like-minded adherents to work for them.
Second, the law as interpreted by EEOC regulations requires employers to provide a “reasonable accommodation” for the religious practices of employees and prospective employees. According to the EEOC’s information sheet on reasonable accommodations, such practices may include: religious garb such as a yarmulke or headscarf; a request for time off to attend a religious ceremony; an atheist’s request to be excused from the religious invocation at the beginning of staff meetings; and conscience exemptions for employees being required to perform objectionable types of work (e.g. a religious pharmacist being required to fill birth control prescriptions, or a Jehovah’s Witness who asks to change jobs at a factory so he will not have to contribute to building weapons of war, etc.).
Does an employer have to grant every request for a religious accommodation it receives?
Generally, no. The law recognizes that some requests might place what it calls “an undue hardship” on the employer. Since this can be difficult to determine except on a case-by-case basis, various tests and legal decisions over the years have helped to define the term. Sometimes an employee’s request for time off for religious reasons puts no hardship on the large employer who may have many other employees willing to work those hours. Other times a request for time off in a smaller company can put the employer in a situation where it cannot staff the position properly.
In the case of the EEOC settlement with AMR, no details of the fact situation have been made available except that AMR of Tennessee is part of a national company with over 29,000 paramedics, EMTs, nurses, doctors and support staff. However, no employment numbers were given for Tennessee, where the case arose. We can surmise that it was perhaps likely that AMR had a sufficient number of employees willing to work on Sunday that it could have easily granted the employee’s request for any or all Sundays off. That in turn would make it likely that a court could find that AMR would not suffer an “undue hardship” by the request.
With no “undue hardship” conclusion likely coming from the court, AMR had no choice but to settle with its employee and the EEOC. As this settlement becomes public knowledge, and human resource departments around the country learn about it, they in turn will, hopefully, treat similar requests for a religious accommodation in a proper manner.
That’s good news for employees and for religious freedom in general.