Reasonable Accommodation for Religious Beliefs or Practices
What is "religion" under Title VII?
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects all aspects of religious observance and practice as well as belief and defines religion very broadly for purposes of determining what the law covers. For purposes of Title VII, religion includes not only traditional, organized religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others. An employee’s belief or practice can be “religious” under Title VII even if the employee is affiliated with a religious group that does not espouse or recognize that individual’s belief or practice, or if few – or no – other people adhere to it. Title VII’s protections also extend to those who are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs.
Religious beliefs include theistic beliefs (i.e. those that include a belief in God) as well as non-theistic “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” Although courts generally resolve doubts about particular beliefs in favor of finding that they are religious, beliefs are not protected merely because they are strongly held. Rather, religion typically concerns “ultimate ideas” about “life, purpose, and death.” Social, political, or economic philosophies, as well as mere personal preferences, are not “religious” beliefs protected by Title VII.
Religious observances or practices include, for example, attending worship services, praying, wearing religious garb or symbols, displaying religious objects, adhering to certain dietary rules, proselytizing or other forms of religious expression, or refraining from certain activities. Whether a practice is religious depends on the employee’s motivation. The same practice might be engaged in by one person for religious reasons and by another person for purely secular reasons (e.g., dietary restrictions, tattoos, etc.).
What is a religious accommodation?
A religious accommodation is a modification or adjustment to the application process or the work environment to allow the individual to practice his or her religious beliefs without creating an undue hardship on CBP.
Is CBP required to provide reasonable accommodation for religious beliefs or practices?
Yes. It is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to fail to provide a reasonable accommodation for the religious beliefs and/or practices of employees and applicants for employment unless providing a reasonable accommodation would result in undue hardship to CBP. Undue hardship means more than de minimis cost or burden on the operation of CBP. Note that this is a lower standard to meet than undue hardship under the Rehabilitation Act, which is defined in that statute as "significant difficulty or expense."
How do I request a religious accommodation?
CBP Employee: Employees seeking a religious accommodation must submit their request through their immediate supervisor. To ensure that CBP maintains accurate records regarding requests for religious accommodation, the receiving supervisor will ask the employee to complete the "CBP Religious Accommodation Request Form." The request will be assigned to a Privacy and Diversity Office (PDO) staff member to facilitate the interactive process between the employee and the management official to determine the appropriate accommodation under the circumstances.
CBP Applicant: An applicant requesting religious accommodation for any stage of the application process must submit a request for religious accommodation to the Indianapolis or Minneapolis Hiring Center, as applicable. Requests for reasonable accommodation to participate in pre-employment polygraph examinations must be submitted to the Office of Internal Affairs, Credibility and Assessment Division, prior to the date of the exam.
CBP’s religious accommodation policy may be accessed at CBP Directive No. 51713-012, Reasonable Accommodation for Religious Beliefs and Practices.
How does CBP determine whether a religious accommodation is appropriate and the type of accommodation that should be granted?
Employer-employee cooperation and flexibility are key to the search for a reasonable religious accommodation. If the accommodation solution is not immediately apparent, an appropriate management official in a session facilitated by the assigned PDO staff member will discuss the request with the employee to determine what accommodations might be effective. If CBP requests additional information reasonably needed to evaluate the request, the employee should provide it. For example, if an employee has requested a schedule change to accommodate daily prayers, CBP may need to ask for information about the religious observance, such as time and duration of the daily prayers, in order to determine whether accommodation can be granted without posing an undue hardship on the operation of CBP. Moreover, even if the employer does not grant the employee’s preferred accommodation, but instead provides an alternative accommodation, the employee must cooperate by attempting to meet his or her religious needs through the proposed accommodation.
Does CBP have to grant every request for accommodation of a religious belief or practice?
No. Title VII requires the agency to accommodate only those religious beliefs that are religious and “sincerely held,” and that can be accommodated without an undue hardship. Although there is usually no reason to question whether the practice at issue is religious or sincerely held, if CBP has a bona fide doubt about the basis for the accommodation request, it is entitled to make a limited inquiry into the facts and circumstances of the employee’s claim that the belief or practice at issue is religious and sincerely held, and gives rise to the need for the accommodation.
Factors that – either alone or in combination – might undermine an employee’s assertion that he sincerely holds the religious belief at issue include: whether the employee has behaved in a manner markedly inconsistent with the professed belief; whether the accommodation sought is a particularly desirable benefit that is likely to be sought for secular reasons; whether the timing of the request renders it suspect (e.g., it follows an earlier request by the employee for the same benefit for secular reasons); and whether the agency otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.
However, none of these factors is dispositive. For example, although prior inconsistent conduct is relevant to the question of sincerity, an individual’s beliefs – or degree of adherence – may change over time, and therefore an employee’s newly adopted or inconsistently observed religious practice may nevertheless be sincerely held. The agency also should not assume that an employee is insincere simply because some of his or her practices deviate from the commonly followed tenets of his or her religion.
If I want to ask for Wednesdays off in order to attend a weekly religious service, am I entitled to a schedule where I never have to work on Wednesdays?
Federal law requires agencies to provide employees reasonable accommodation for employees’ religious beliefs and practices. Thus, you are entitled to a religious accommodation to attend your weekly religious service, but the accommodation you are entitled to will not necessarily be a permanent shift assignment. The accommodation will depend on the needs of the agency. If you need a change in schedule or other change to accommodate your religion, you should make a reasonable accommodation request to your immediate supervisor.
When does an accommodation pose an “undue hardship?”
An accommodation would pose an undue hardship if it –would cause more than de minimis cost on the operation of CPB. Factors relevant to undue hardship may include the type of workplace, the nature of the employee’s duties, the identifiable cost of the accommodation in relation to the size and operating costs of the agency, and the number of employees who will in fact need a particular accommodation.
Costs to be considered include not only direct monetary costs but also the burden on the conduct of CBP’s business. For example, courts have found undue hardship where the accommodation diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, or causes co-workers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work. Whether the proposed accommodation conflicts with another law will also be considered.
To prove undue hardship, CBP will need to demonstrate how much cost or disruption a proposed accommodation would involve. The agency cannot rely on potential or hypothetical hardship when faced with a religious obligation that conflicts with scheduled work, but rather should rely on objective information. A mere assumption that many more people with the same religious practices as the individual being accommodated may also seek accommodation is not evidence of undue hardship. If the agency’s proposed accommodation would pose an undue hardship, the agency should explore alternative accommodations.
Does CBP have to provide an accommodation that would violate a seniority system or collective bargaining agreement?
No. A proposed religious accommodation poses an undue hardship if it would deprive another employee of a job preference or other benefit guaranteed by a bona fide seniority system or collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Of course, the mere existence of a seniority system or CBA does not relieve CBP of the duty to attempt reasonable accommodation of its employees’ religious practices; the question is whether an accommodation can be provided without violating the seniority system or CBA. Often the agency can allow co-workers to volunteer to substitute or swap shifts as an accommodation to address a scheduling need without violating a seniority system or CBA.
What if co-workers complain about an employee being granted an accommodation?
Although religious accommodations that infringe on co-workers’ ability to perform their duties or subject co-workers to a hostile work environment will generally constitute undue hardship, general disgruntlement, resentment, or jealousy of co-workers will not. Undue hardship requires more than proof that some co-workers complained; a showing of undue hardship based on co-worker interests generally requires evidence that the accommodation would actually infringe on the rights of co-workers or cause disruption of work.
Can a requested accommodation be denied due to security considerations?
If a religious practice actually conflicts with a legally mandated security requirement, CBP does not have to accommodate the practice because doing so would create an undue hardship. If a security requirement has been unilaterally imposed by CBP and is not required by law or regulation, the agency will need to decide whether it would be an undue hardship to modify or eliminate the requirement to accommodate an employee who has a religious conflict.
What are common methods of religious accommodation in the workplace?
Under Title VII, CBP may use a variety of methods to provide reasonable accommodations to its employees. Some of the most common methods are:
- Scheduling changes, voluntary substitutes, and shift swaps;
- Changing an employee’s job tasks or providing a lateral transfer;
- Making an exception to dress and grooming rules;
- Use of the work facility for a religious observance;
- Accommodations relating to payment of union dues or agency fees; and
- Accommodating prayer, proselytizing, and other forms of religious expression.
How might First Amendment constitutional issues arise in title VII religious cases?
The First Amendment religion and speech clauses (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech”) protect individuals against restrictions imposed by the government. Government employees’ religious expression is protected by both the First Amendment and Title VII. See Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace (Aug. 14, 1997). For example, a government employer may contend that granting a requested religious accommodation would pose an undue hardship because it would constitute government endorsement of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.