Religious Accommodation: Do Employers Have a Prayer?



The issue of religious accommodation in the workplace can be a difficult one for employers to handle.  With our work force becoming more diverse every day, the issue is popping up more and more frequently.  Most employers are obligated under Title VII (or a similar State law) to attempt to reasonably accommodate its work place practices to the religious beliefs and practices of their employees.   Generally, a suggested accommodation may be rejected if it will create an "undue hardship."  An accommodation can be established as "undue" if an employer can show that it will entail more than a de minimis cost, compromise a necessary and established policy, or impose a burden on other employees.  In some cases, however, it can be very difficult for an employer to know where to draw the line between what is reasonable, and what might be considered an undue hardship.  Just such a dilemma arose recently in Nashville, Tennessee.

Last month, thirty Muslim employees walked off of their jobs at a plant owned and operated by Dell Incorporated in Nashville, Tennessee.  The employees claimed that the company would not allow them to pray at sunset, as required by their religion.   Islamic prayer, the employees alleged, is of great importance and necessity to Muslim employees.  The Muslim employees wanted to leave their workstations for prayer at least five times a day, and demanded that the sunset prayer had to occur at dusk regardless of the employer’s needs.

Dell asserted that it had a long-standing policy of accommodating employees' religious beliefs.  Indeed, it had adopted a "tag out" policy allowing employees to leave their stations as long as the employees found others to cover the station while they prayed.  Dell had even set up a private place for the employees to pray.  Still, a conflict occurred.

The employees and Dell have been participating in a mediation facilitated by the city's Human Relations Commission in an effort to resolve this matter.  It has been reported that the parties have reached a settlement and that most, if not all, of the employees have returned to work.  Regardless of whether the dispute has now been resolved, the recent incident emphasizes the importance of the growing issue of religious accommodation.  The issues will continue to arise, and each matter will need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis to determine the best approach for managing that particular situation.

Moreover, the issue of religious accommodation does not arise only with Muslim employees.  An employer must be prepared to fairly and reasonably engage in dialogue with employees about accommodations for a variety of religious practices, i.e., Christian workers who request accommodations allowing the display of a Christmas tree, or Jewish employees who request Saturdays off.  The smart employer will develop a procedure for examining each issue, investigating the possible accommodations and their impact to the workplace, and implementation of an appropriate accommodation when reasonable.  If none can be found that will avoid undue hardship, the employee requesting the accommodation should be so informed.  As always, well-trained managers are an employer's best defense to charges of discrimination.