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Religious Accommodation Refresher

A recent case from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana serves as a good reminder of an employer's obligation, pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to reasonably accommodate employees' sincerely held religious beliefs.

Although the employer in this case offered numerous accommodations, the court found that none of them appeared "reasonable" under the circumstances. The primary lesson of this case is that circumstances are a critical consideration when crafting reasonable accommodations.

Employers who are covered by Title VII must provide their employees a reasonable accommodation for a religious practice or observance, unless doing so would create an undue burden to the employer's business. Timothy Walker asked his employer, Alcoa, for a religious accommodation of no work on Sundays. Alcoa granted the accommodation for many years, but eventually decided that the accommodation had become unduly burdensome because of changed business circumstances. Alcoa discontinued the accommodation, but Walker refused to work Sundays and was eventually terminated for excessive absenteeism. Walker sued, alleging (among other things) religious discrimination in violation of Title VII.

Although some options were rejected because they violated Alcoa's labor agreement with Walker's union, it was undisputed that Alcoa offered Walker numerous accommodations in an effort to eliminate the conflict between his religious practices and Alcoa's scheduling needs. These included allowing Walker to use accrued vacation, allowing him to self-swap shifts with co-workers, work double shifts on Saturdays, or modified shifts on Sundays, and allowing him to make up Sunday work at other times when he was not scheduled to work. Alcoa also proposed allowing Walker to bid for a comparable position in another department with less or no Sunday work. Alcoa argued that, because it had tried to reasonably accommodate Walker, the court should dismiss the case. The court disagreed.

The court found that Alcoa may have violated Title VII because none of its proposed accommodations completely removed the conflict between Walker's religious practice and his work obligations. Each of the proposed accommodations either required Walker to forfeit some benefit (e.g., vacation) or left intact the possibility that he may have to work on Sunday (e.g., if no one would swap with him). The court also found that it was unclear whether allowing Walker to have all Sundays off would create an undue burden for Alcoa. The court held that a jury must decide these questions. Walker v. Alcoa, Inc., WL 2356997 (N.D. Ind. 2008).

The Bottom Line

This case should remind employers of the importance of making a sincere effort to accommodate employees' sincerely held religious beliefs. An employer is not required to grant the accommodation of the employee's choice. It is, however, required to grant an effective accommodation, if that can be done without creating an undue burden for the employer. If no reasonable accommodation appears possible, the employer should be prepared to present proof of how any accommodation would result in undue burden.

If you have any questions regarding this, or any other legal issue, please feel free to contact a member of Greenebaum's Labor and Employment Practice Group.

This communication is provided as general information rather than legal advice. Questions about individual situations should be addressed to the attorney of your choice. The regulations governing legal advertising in the states of Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee require that communications of this kind contain the following statement: THIS IS AN ADVERTISEMENT. Kentucky law does not certify specialties of practice.

About Greenebaum Doll & McDonald PLLC
Greenebaum Doll & McDonald PLLC is a widely-respected business law firm with approximately 200 legal professionals in six offices, serving local, national and international clients in virtually every industry. A forward-thinking business law firm, Greenebaum is committed to the practice of Breakthrough Law®. 

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