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Employment Blog

Employee Requests for Accommodations for Non-Traditional Religious Observances - Practice What You PREACH

Authored by Ruder Ware Attorneys
Posted on August 9, 2013
Filed under Employment

Most employers are at least remotely familiar with the requirement under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide reasonable accommodations in response to employee requests to participate in religious observances or practices, if doing so does not cause demonstrable (not hypothetical or speculative) undue hardship to the employer's business operations. Recently, the federal U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (which includes Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana) evaluated whether an employer appropriately accommodated one of its employee's requests for several weeks of leave to travel to his native Nigeria to preside over his father's funeral ceremonies. The case is Adeyeye v. Heartland Sweeteners, LLC, Case No. 12-3820 (7th Cir. Jul. 31, 2013). In Adeyeye, primarily at issue was whether the employee provided sufficient notice to his employer about his religious observance and how it conflicted with a work requirement. In Adeyeye, the employee wrote the following requesting leave:

I hereby request for five weeks leave in order to attend funeral ceremony of my father. This is very important for me to be there in order to participate in the funeral rite according to our custom and tradition. The ceremony usually cover from three to four weeks and is two weeks after the burial, there is certain rites that all of the children must participate. And after the third week, my mother will not come out until after one month when I have to be there to encourage her, and I have to kill five goats, then she can now come out. This is done compulsory for the children so that the death will not come or take away any of the children's life. I will appreciate if this request is approved.

The Court noted that the employee's reference to a "funeral ceremony," a "funeral rite," animal sacrifice, "compulsory" participation and the adverse spiritual consequences of not attending the ceremonies, provided sufficient notice to the employer concerning a bona fide religious request. This is true, the Court noted, even though the employee's professed religious beliefs are "not as familiar as beliefs and practices closer to the modern American mainstream," because "the protections of Title VII are not limited to familiar religions." This case teaches that all religious requests, "even those that may to some, at first blush, seem "out there" (e.g., the Church of Body Modification), must be taken seriously."

Faced with requests for an accommodation of non-traditional religious observances (or traditional observances), employers are encouraged to put "PREACH" into practice when evaluating such requests (as explained below):

P Political, philosophical and mere personal preferences generally do not rise to the level of "religion" for Title VII purposes.

R Religion is measured by one's personal "scheme of things," and whether a professed belief occupies a parallel to that filed by the orthodox belief in God.

E Eliminate the conflict. Employers, after receiving notice of the religions belief and conflict with a work requirement, must attempt to identify accommodations that eliminate the conflict between the belief and work requirement.

A Ask the employee to articulate one or more accommodations he or she thinks will eliminate the conflict between belief and work rule - this is the "interactive process."

C Choose the appropriate accommodation - "employers are not required to accept the employee's preferred accommodation" only an accommodation that is "reasonable."

H Hardship. Even if an accommodation is reasonable, it is not necessary if it causes an undue hardship (but hardship must be factual, not hypothetical).