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What employers need to know about accommodating religious beliefs

| Feb 14, 2019 | business litigation |

As a business owner, you know that discriminating against an applicant or employee because of their religion is illegal. So is subjecting a person (or allowing them to be subjected) to harassment in the workplace because of their religious beliefs — or lack thereof.

However, what obligation do you have to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and practices as an employer? For example, what if an employee asks to take a day off that is a religious holiday for them but a business day for your company? What if an employee’s faith requires them to wear a particular item of clothing, like a hijab, or not to shave their beard?

Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act (specifically, Title VII), employers are required to make “reasonable accommodation without undue hardship” for employees’ religious practices and beliefs. Typically, allowing an employee to take a day off for a religious holiday would be considered reasonable — especially if they gave you advance notice.

Religious dress and grooming issues have gotten some well-known businesses in legal difficulty. In 2015, a case involving Abercrombie & Fitch made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where the retailer lost resoundingly in an 8-1 decision. The company had turned down a Muslim applicant for a job because her hijab violated its “look policy.”

Some religions (like the Sikh faith) forbid men from cutting their hair and require that they have a beard. If an employer can prove that this would endanger the employee or other workers and there’s no compromise that would prevent that danger, they may have a case for not hiring that person.

If you have any doubt about whether an action would violate an applicant’s or employee’s legal right to practice their religion, it’s wise to seek legal guidance. A religious discrimination lawsuit can be costly to your bottom line and your reputation.