Employers, here are 110,759 reasons why you’re not the religion police.


Since only the real ones are reading the blog this week, I must confess that it would be cool to patrol the office halls with a fake badge I ordered from Amazon to restore order and HR compliance to the workplace.

But policing religion is where I must draw the line.

I’ll explain why.

Let’s start with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to accommodate the religious beliefs of applicants and employees who are “sincerely held.” Unfortunately, “sincerely held” is difficult to pinpoint in this context.

In its guidance on religious discrimination, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notes that an “individual’s sincerity in espousing a religious observance or practice is ‘largely a matter of individual credibility,'” with a corresponding request for accommodation hinging on factors such as:

  • 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 employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.

But consider also that individual 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.

For these reasons, employment lawyers generally counsel employers not to question the sincerity of religious beliefs but, instead, focus on whether there is a reasonable way to accommodate them. Getting bogged down in whether someone’s religious beliefs are sincerely held often leads to trouble.

Here’s an example.

In May, the EEOC announced that it had sued an employer that allegedly failed to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs that men must wear beards. According to the EEOC, the employee repeatedly explained that although he did not belong to a formal religious denomination, he held a Christian belief about facial hair. The company then allegedly refused to allow the employee to come to work with facial hair because the employee could not provide additional substantiation of his beliefs or a supporting statement from a certified or documented religious leader.

Yesterday, the EEOC announced it had settled with the employer for $110,759. Plus, the company must institute and disseminate a new religious accommodation policy, provide training on religious discrimination and retaliation, and report to the EEOC quarterly on any complaints.

All because it allegedly played religion police.

And probably without the cool fake badge.

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