Q. Last week, our employee Stanley told his supervisor he needed Friday the 7th off for his religious observance of the Beheading of John the Baptist, Monday the 10th off for the Nativity of Mary, and Tuesday the 11th off for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This employee has never made a religious request before, and the supervisor suspected he was actually taking a long weekend for a fishing trip, but she granted the leave anyway. Since this kind of request may come up again (there seems to be a different feast or holy day every day of the year), what are our obligations as an employer, and what kind of proof can we require from the employee?
A. You´re required to make reasonable accommodations for the sincerely held religious beliefs of an employee, but you do have the right to some verification when an employee makes a special request based on religion. Oregon civil rights laws and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit discrimination based on an employee´s religion and require you to "reasonably accommodate" religious beliefs and practices unless you can show that doing so will result in "undue hardship."
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that employers must attempt to accommodate an employee´s belief that is religious in nature and sincerely held - even if the religion is non-traditional or one you haven´t heard of before. When an employee makes a religious request, your first step as an employer should be to engage in an interactive process to discuss the employee´s religious needs and consider the potential options for accommodation.
Since your supervisor already approved Gerhard´s time off, your best bet is to give the employee the benefit of the doubt with regard to this particular absence. Of course, he may indeed have been fibbing - and fishing. We´re no experts on Christian feasts and holidays, but our research indicates that this year, the named holy days fall on Aug. 29, Sept. 8 and Sept. 14, respectively, if Gerhard´s church goes by the Julian calendar, or Sept. 11, 21 and 27 if his church uses the Gregorian calendar.
Either way, the dates don´t match up, but it´s possible that Gerhard´s church recognizes these events on different dates. In the future, you do have the right to request that an employee provide you a note from his priest (or minister or rabbi) to verify his religion and clarify whether it´s a tenet of that religion that he may not work on particular days.
Note that you´re not obligated to accommodate requests that are based merely on an employee´s personal preference. If, say, attending the service for the beheading of St. John were clearly optional under Gerhard´s religion, you wouldn´t be obligated to grant his request for the day off.
However, if Gerhard´s religion in fact prohibits him from working on particular days, you must determine whether it would be a reasonable accommodation or an undue hardship to grant his request for time off. You should take into consideration the size of your company, the nature of the work Gerhard performs, and the cost involved in granting the request.
Courts generally have not required employers to go as far in accommodating religious requests as they must when accommodating disabled employees under the ADA. Still, you should evaluate an employee´s religious restrictions seriously and make a good faith effort to accommodate. If you decide to deny a requested accommodation, you should be prepared to show with documentation why it would have been an undue hardship for your company.
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