If you have an employee whose religious beliefs put him or her in conflict with some aspect of the job, do you always have to make accommodations? What if the beliefs seem unusual, strange, or out-right odd to you? Does it matter if the employee is an Evangelical Christian or an Asatru that follows Odin? Knowing the answer to those questions can keep your company out of religious discrimination trouble.
A Refusal to Make Accommodations Can Lead to Charges of Religious Discrimination
The law forbids employers from discriminating against employees based on their religion. It also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for an employee's religious beliefs or practices. The only exception is when doing so would put more than a "minimal burden" on the employer in some way—usually in some financial manner.
Most of the time, religious accommodations involve things like allowing Jewish employees to leave early on Fridays so that they can observe the sabbath or allowing Muslim women to cover their hair so that they can observe the modesty requirements of their religion. When an employer refuses to make even the slightest adjustments to allow for a religious accommodation, that can quickly result in a discrimination lawsuit.
What happens, however, when your employee's religious beliefs seem unusual, strange, or out-right odd?
It Doesn't Matter If the Belief Seems Strange or Not, as Long as the Request Is Reasonable
It doesn't matter what you think about your employee's religion or religious beliefs. All that matters is whether or not the beliefs are sincerely held, not why they are held, and whether the requested accommodation would actually put more than that minimal burden on your company.
A recent case involving hand scanners designed to track employees for payroll purposes illustrates precisely that point. The employee's religious convictions included the belief that the scanners could be used to put "the mark of the Beast," or Devil, on him. He asked his employer to use another method to clock him in and out of work instead.
In this particular instance, the employee's concerns were apparently not isolated, since the company that makes the scanner had prepared information designed to alleviate similar fears by other Evangelical Christians, like the employee in question.
The employer, however, said that his belief was based on a misunderstanding of the scanner's technology and a misinterpretation of the Biblical passages involved. The employer stubbornly refused to make any accommodations, so the employee retired early and sued. He won.
The court said that it simply doesn't matter why the employee believes what he does—what matters is that his belief is apparently sincerely held. Since his request for accommodation didn't put more than a very minimal burden on the employer, the employer had no reason to refuse.
Keep Your Personal Feelings on the Subject out of Any Decision Involving Accommodations
Unless you can prove a clear rationale for not making the accommodation, granting the employee's request can avoid a nasty and unnecessary lawsuit.
For example, if you have a pagan employee who requests time off to observe the Winter Solstice instead of Christmas, making that accommodation would generally be considered reasonable—regardless of your personal beliefs on the matter.
If you do decide that accommodating your employee's request is going to put a significant burden on your company, be prepared to show how and why. Consider consulting a business lawyer about the decision as well, to see if there are any alternative solutions that can keep you out of court.