For many religious believers, asking their employer not to work on a holy day (Sundays for Christians, the Sabbath for Jews, etc.) is more than just a matter of personal preference; it is a religious obligation arising from Scripture and its admonition to keep holy days sacred. Keeping the Sabbath or Sunday holy gives honor to God and allows one to rest from one’s labors—just as the Creator did at the very founding of the world.
Unfortunately, too many think that their request to avoid work on certain days according to their religious beliefs is wholly dependent on what the boss has to say. They assume that if the boss tells the employee she has to work on a day she specifically requested not to work on for religious reasons, then the employee has no recourse but to either acquiesce or quit her job.
That is not the law.
If a Christian informs his employer he cannot work on Sundays according to his religious beliefs (or a Jewish employee says the same with respect to the Sabbath), the employer cannot ignore the request or just tell the employee no, and nothing more.
Federal law, i.e., Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibits employers (with 15 or more employees) from discriminating based on religion. Congress has defined broadly what falls within that category. “Religion” includes:
all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.
In other words, under Title VII, once an employer learns that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief conflicts with the terms of his employment (such as not working on the Sabbath), the employer is required to reasonably accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs—unless such accommodation would result in undue hardship to the employer. Evidence of “undue hardship” must be more than mere speculation, and it must be present hardship—as distinguished from anticipated hardship.
Title VII thus places an affirmative duty on the part of the employer to make a good faith effort to arrange the employee’s schedule so that he can keep the Sabbath. As the Supreme Court has stated, “bilateral cooperation is appropriate in search for an acceptable reconciliation of the needs of the employee’s religion and the exigencies of the employer’s business.” The employer violates Title VII if it has “made no real effort” in accommodating the employee or has taken a “don’t care” attitude to the request for religious accommodation.
This explanation of the law is more than academic. We were recently contacted by a former pharmacist-client of ours who has worked for a large, nationwide pharmacy chain for thirteen years. When she was told by her employer that she had to now start working on Sundays—after thirteen years of not being required to do so—she informed her employer that she couldn’t agree pursuant to her religious beliefs.
Unfortunately, the answer to our client’s request for a religious accommodation was a form letter with an outright rejection. The employer didn’t explain why it couldn’t accommodate our client’s religious beliefs; it didn’t engage in any meaningful dialogue about how her religious beliefs could be accommodated. It simply said, in essence, no dice.
That response isn’t in keeping with federal law; and after we sent a demand letter to the company’s legal counsel explaining why that’s the case, this major corporation backed down. Our client’s religious beliefs will now be accommodated by not having to work on Sundays.
When it comes to religion and the workplace, employers cannot demand job requirements without question, and employees cannot demand job perks without question. Whether an employer is able to accommodate an employee’s religious belief (such as not working on holy days) is a fact-intensive analysis that turns on numerous considerations. What is clear, however, is that when there’s a conflict between a religious duty and a job requirement, the boss doesn’t always have the final word.
Finally, Title VII covers much, much more than an employee’s right to not to work on the Sabbath. It protects a pharmacist who cannot in good conscience dispense the morning-after pill, the nurse who doesn’t want to participate in an abortion, and the doctor who refuses to counsel a patient about the so-called benefits of euthanasia.
For decades at the ACLJ, we have used Title VII to vindicate the rights of health care professionals and others in the workplace. Religious believers shouldn’t have to choose between their profession and their religious conscience.
If you’ve experienced an issue with religious discrimination in the workplace or just want more information about how you can make a proper request for religious accommodation under Title VII, it’s what we are here for. Contact us with your situation at ACLJ.org/HELP.
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