No undue hardship for religious accommodation request – Earn Charter

A federal district court in Arizona recently barred an employer from using the undue hardship defense at trial to justify its denial of an employee’s request for time off due to his religious beliefs. The employee requested 1.5 unpaid days off to attend a 4-day Elders Training related to his Jehovah’s Witness faith. The employer denied the accommodation on the basis of undue hardship, because the employee’s department was busy, had short deadlines, and had uncertain daily staffing levels. The employee then sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, alleging that he was denied a reasonable accommodation for his sincerely held religious beliefs.

Applying the tough standard for undue hardship set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2023, the district court said that the employer failed to show “any substantial burdens or concrete costs” resulting from the absence. As we previously reported, the Supreme Court ruled that undue hardship must rise to an “excessive” or “unjustifiable” level in order to relieve an employer of its duty to accommodate religious beliefs under Title VII. Here, the employer merely outlined the workload in the department and vaguely asserted that the absence would affect coworkers, which was insufficient to demonstrate undue hardship. The employer also failed to establish that all other potential accommodations, such as an alternative schedule, would pose an undue hardship. The court noted that the employer would have granted the accommodation if the employee had enough accrued paid time off to cover it, which undermined the argument that the accommodation came at a “substantial cost.” Based on the evidence, no reasonable jury could conclude that 1.5 days of leave caused an undue hardship to the employer’s business (Smith v. City of Mesa, D Ariz, Dec. 2023).

Tips: Under federal law, applicants and employees are entitled to accommodation of their sincerely held religious beliefs, unless it would cause undue hardship to the company’s operations. The Supreme Court’s 2023 decision makes this an extremely high burden to meet. Merely establishing that the accommodation is inconvenient, difficult, or costly is not enough. Instead, employers should be able to specifically describe the actual impact of the proposed accommodation given the nature, size, and operating costs of the business. You should consistently document your analysis and decision in response to each request for religious accommodation so you’re prepared to defend the decision (consider using our Model Form, Religious Accommodation Request to help with documentation). If you need assistance in conducting a reasonable accommodation analysis, please contact your Vigilant Law Group employment attorney. For general information, see our Legal Guide, Religious Accommodation in the Workplace.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *