By Deborah J. Hopkins, November 28, 2023

In the FELTG November newsletter, I wrote about a few cases involving hostile work environment claims based on religion. This week, our focus turns to claims of religious discrimination from another angle – reasonable accommodation. Please note that earlier this year the Supreme Court issued a decision, Groff v. Dejoy, which increased the undue hardship burden on employers in cases of religious accommodation, so any mention of the then-existing de minimis standard in these cases has now been superseded. Check out FELTG’s summary of Groff takeaways for agencies, and then join me back in this space to read on.

Requiring proof of mosque attendance

The complainant, a secretary at the National Institutes of Health, requested leave to observe upcoming religious services at her mosque. Her supervisors required her to provide documentation of attendance, even though employees of other faiths who requested leave for religious purposes were not required to provide similar documentation from their faith institutions. The complainant’s supervisors also allegedly created extra work for her in order to impede her ability to take leave as religious accommodation. She filed a complaint alleging discrimination based on religion (Al’ Islam), among other categories. While this complaint included religious accommodation and religious harassment claims, the EEOC found the agency liable for hostile work environment harassment based on religion but did not find a failure to accommodate. Sabir v. Dep’t of Health and Human Services, EEOC App. No. 01993859 (Sept. 11, 2002).

Sabbath scheduling request

The complainant, a full-time city carrier, requested a flexible work schedule that would allow him to have the Sabbath off work. He observed from sunset Friday until sunset Saturday. His regular day off was Sunday and his other scheduled day off rotated. Rather than attempt to facilitate the request through schedule swaps, the agency told the complainant to submit Saturday LWOP requests weekly and that they would attempt to accommodate the requests depending on operational needs. The EEOC found the agency violated Title VII on the basis of the employee’s religion (Jewish), because the agency did not show a schedule change would be an undue hardship. Don T. v. U.S. Postal Serv., EEOC App. No. 2019001176 (Jan. 30, 2020).

Requested exemption from carrying a weapon

The complainant, who worked as a supervisory chaplain for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, requested a religious accommodation to be exempted from carrying pepper spray while on duty, which was required of all employees in the Federal Corrections Institution where he worked. He claimed his religion, Oneness Pentecostal (Pacifist), forbade him from carrying any weapons. The agency denied the request, claiming, if granted, the accommodation would have a “significant impact” on facility operations. It would reduce the number of employees who could respond to an emergency situation, the agency claimed. The EEOC disagreed with the agency. Because there were approximately 300 other employees who carried pepper spray, granting the request would not have been an undue hardship. Frances A. v. Dep’t of Justice, EEOC App. No. 2019004187 (Nov. 30, 2020).

Requests for Sundays off

The complainant, a rural carrier associate, advised her supervisors she would not be available to work Sundays due to her religious beliefs. She did not report to work the following two Sundays. As a result, she received a seven-day suspension (reduced to a letter of warning) for the first absence and a 14-day suspension (reduced to a seven-day suspension) for the second absence. She filed an EEO complaint, alleging, in part, the agency discriminated against her on the basis of her religion (Christian) when she was issued the suspensions and not excused from working on Sundays.

The complainant’s supervisor explained that employees were required to work three out of every four Sundays because of a USPS partnership with Amazon, and if the complainant was not required to work on Sundays, there would not be anyone available to do the work. The EEOC found the supervisor’s statement lacked sufficient proof, and the agency did not exercise a good faith effort to accommodate the complainant’s request. EEOC also found there was not sufficient evidence to demonstrate that it would have been an undue hardship to grant the complainant Sundays off. Among other things, the agency was ordered to provide the complainant with a religious accommodation; to remove and expunge the disciplinary actions and records related to the failure to work on Sundays; to restore any leave the complainant was forced to use to avoid working Sundays; and to conduct a supplemental investigation into the complainant’s entitlement to compensatory damages. Heidi B. v. U.S. Postal Serv., EEOC App. No. 0120182601 (Nov. 8, 2019).

Private sector litigation

One other issue that’s been coming up in courtrooms across the country is when a person’s religious belief conflicts with another EEO category. For example: A business owner does not want to provide services to an LGBTQ+ customer. While litigation may be ongoing in the rest of the country, the issue is well-settled in the Federal government: “[A]n employer need not accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs if doing so would result in discrimination against his co-workers…” Hillier v. Secretary of Treasury, EEOC App. No. 0120150248 (2016).

If your agency would like training on this or any other topic, we’d be happy to provide you with more information. [email protected].

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