By Meghan Droste, May 19, 2021
This month, I’m wrapping up our discussion of issues regarding religious accommodations. To recap, we’ve discussed the definition of an undue hardship in the context of religious accommodations (January), how far an agency can inquire into the sincerity of the religious beliefs or practices at issue (February), what an agency must do before raising an undue hardship defense (March), and the difference between a religious practice being part of a sincerely held belief and a voluntary activity that does not require accommodations (April). For our last look at this topic, we’ll examine a slight twist on the issue — whether people who are not a member of a religious group are entitled to accommodations.
As you know by now, agencies have an obligation to provide accommodations, if doing so is not an undue hardship, to accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs of employees. Unsurprisingly, we usually discuss accommodations in the context of an employee seeking to practice a specific religion (e.g. Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity). However, employees who are not members of a specific religion, and whose religious beliefs are that they do not believe in a higher being/divine spirit/god, may also be entitled to accommodations. How can this be? The Commission’s decision in Harmon v. Department of Transportation, EEOC App. No. 01950755 (Feb. 2, 1998), provides a good example.
In the Harmon case, the agency required employees with substance abuse issues to attend a mandatory drug rehabilitation program, specifically 12-Step Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings. The problem for the complainant was that the NA meetings were religious-based; as an agnostic he found that the NA meetings caused him “extreme emotional turmoil and distress.” In addition to compensatory damages he suffered as a result of the required participation in the NA meetings, the complainant sought an order directing the agency not to use religious-based drug rehabilitation programs for its employees.
In its decision, the Commission noted that an agency’s “duty of reasonable accommodation includes efforts to eliminate any conflicts between an employee’s religious beliefs and employment requirements, and to preserve the employee’s employment status.” The Commission then found that rather than ordering the agency not to offer religious-based rehabilitation programs, the appropriate approach was to offer non-religious programs as an accommodation to those employees, like the complainant, for whom religious-based programs conflicted with their beliefs.
In other words, the agency was required to provide secular programs to accommodate the complainant’s religious beliefs that the existence of god is unknowable or the beliefs of other employees that there is no god. Entitlement to religious accommodations (and freedom from harassment or discrimination based on religion) extend to those who do not identify with any religion — if they didn’t, many employees could be forced to participate in activities that violate their sincerely held beliefs, or treated differently simply because those beliefs do not take the form of a religion. Droste@FELTG.com