Know the Law: Do We Have to Accommodate Our Employees’ Religious Beliefs?

Laura McKelligott Kahl
Associate, Litigation Department
Published: Union Leader
November 21, 2021

Q: An employee just asked her manager for an exemption from one of our company’s rules because it would require her to violate her religious beliefs. Does the company need to change the rule for her?

A: Maybe. The company must provide her with a reasonable accommodation unless her request is not based on a sincerely held religious belief, or unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on it. Therefore, the first step is for company to have an interactive dialogue with her.

Employers should generally assume that this sort of request is based on a sincerely held religious belief unless there is an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of the asserted belief. If there is, the employer can seek additional information. When assessing the asserted belief, keep in mind that both traditional and nontraditional beliefs are protected, and that the sincerity of the stated belief is largely a matter of individual credibility. Factors that might undermine an employee’s credibility include: whether the employee has behaved in a manner markedly inconsistent with the professed belief; whether the accommodation sought is a particularly desirable benefit likely to be sought for secular reasons; whether the timing of the request renders it suspect (e.g., it follows an earlier request for the same benefit for secular reasons); and whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.

If the company determines that this employee’s request is based on a sincerely held religious belief, the company needs to consider all possible alternatives to enforcing the rule against her that do not impose an undue hardship. An undue hardship in this context is anything that requires the company to bear more than a minimal direct monetary cost, places any burden on the company’s business, impairs workplace safety, diminishes efficiency in other jobs, or causes the accommodated employee’s coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.

Accommodations for religious beliefs have been getting a lot of attention recently in connection with COVID vaccination rules. However, the obligation to provide religious accommodations applies broadly to all personnel policies, such as dress codes, scheduling policies, or break time rules. Determining how to address an employee’s request for a religious accommodation can be complex and involves potential risk. Therefore, employers should consult experienced employment counsel in the process.

Know the Law is a bi-weekly column sponsored by McLane Middleton.  Questions and ideas for future columns should be emailed to [email protected].  Know the Law provides general legal information, not legal advice.  We recommend that you consult a lawyer for guidance specific to your particular situation.