By Steven Collis
Recent news stories describe the tension between Muslim workers seeking multiple prayer breaks at specified times during their workday and employers who need those workers on their assembly lines. Many Muslim employees, including some in Colorado, have walked off the job, claiming their prayer requests have been unlawfully denied. With religious accommodations cases in the news, let’s look at how to handle these tricky situations.
Case In Point
The Muslim faith requires five daily prayers at specific times of the day, such as pre-dawn and sunset. Ariens Company, a manufacturer of lawn mowers and snowblowers, previously had allowed 53 Somali immigrant Muslim production workers to leave their work stations to pray at times required by their faith. In recent months, however, Ariens decided not to accommodate special prayer breaks, requiring instead that workers only leave their assembly-line positions during their two 10-minute breaks per shift. Although Ariens provides prayer rooms that the Muslim employees may use for their daily prayers, it says it costs too much in lost productivity to shut down an assembly line for unscheduled prayer breaks.
In January of this year, the Muslim employees walked off their jobs to protest Ariens’ policy which they say forces them to choose between their religion and their jobs. By February, many had returned to work but seven were fired for continuing to take unscheduled prayer breaks and 14 resigned because of the policy.
The issue has attracted the attention of the news media as well as advocacy groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The group planned to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that Ariens failed to reasonably accommodate the Somali Muslim workers’ religious beliefs.
Religious Discrimination Prohibited
Title VII and the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA) both prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of religion. These laws protect against offering less favorable terms or conditions of employment, such as pay, job assignments, promotions, training, fringe benefits, etc., as well as prohibiting workplace harassment and retaliation based on religion.
Title VII defines “religion” very broadly to include organized religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, as well as sincerely held religious beliefs that are not part of a formal church or sect. In determining whether a practice or belief is religious under Title VII, the inquiry is whether it involves moral or ethical beliefs as to right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. Title VII also extends workplace protections to those who are discriminated against because they do not believe in religion or a particular set of religious beliefs.
CADA also embraces a broad definition of religion and creed. Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission regulations define religion to mean all aspects of religious observance, belief and practice that need not be part of a particular organized religion, sect, or faith.
Reasonable Religious Accommodations
Under both federal and state law, Colorado employers have a duty to reasonably accommodate the religious practices or observances of employees, unless doing so would result in an undue hardship. An applicant or employee must make the employer aware of the need for an accommodation and that it is being requested due to a conflict between a work policy or requirement and a religious belief or observance.
Common types of religious accommodations that may be required include:
- scheduling changes, voluntary substitutes, and shift swaps
- providing an exception to your dress or grooming policy
- use of the work facility for a religious observance
- accommodating prayer or other types of religious expression
- lateral transfer or change of job assignments
Importantly, an employer may not deny employment to an applicant based on an assumption that the applicant will need a religious accommodation. Following the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., if an applicant can show that the need for a religious accommodation is a “motivating factor” in the employer’s decision not to hire him or her, the employer violates Title VII, regardless of whether the employer had actual knowledge of the applicant’s religious beliefs or whether he or she will actually need an accommodation. Read more