What Law Governs Employers in California?
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which is commonly referred to as “Title VII”) is the federal anti-discrimination statute, which includes provisions pertaining to religion. The state law counterpart to Title VII is the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). Like Title VII, the FEHA also contains provisions pertaining to religion.
What Does the Law Say?
Both Title VII and the FEHA prohibit discrimination based on religion and require employers to make reasonable accommodations for their employees’ religious beliefs that are associated with traditional religions, as well as religious observances and practices. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) defines “religious beliefs” to include theistic beliefs (i.e. those that include a belief in God) as well as non-theistic moral or ethical beliefs about right and wrong that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.
What Is A Religious Accommodation?
For the purposes of federal law (i.e. Title VII), a religious accommodation can be any adjustment to the work environment that will allow an employee or applicant to practice his or her religion. The need for religious accommodation may arise where the employee’s religious beliefs, observances, or practices conflict with a specific job requirement. Explore our resourceful content to grasp the complexities of religious discrimination.
Accommodation requests often relate to work schedules, dress and grooming, or religious expression in the workplace. If it would not pose an undue hardship, the employer must grant the accommodation.
Under the California FEHA, employers must demonstrate they have explored any available reasonable alternative means of accommodating an employee’s religious belief or observance that conflicts with any employment requirement—including (i) excusing the person from those duties that conflict with a religious belief or observance or (ii) permitting those duties to be performed at another time or by someone else—but are unable to reasonably accommodate the religious belief or observance without “undue hardship.”
What Undue Hardship?
On June 29, 2023, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Gross v. Dejoy wherein it explained an undue hardship requires an employer who denies an accommodation request to show “more than a de minimis cost.” The High Court explained that “undue hardship” is shown when a burden is substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business. It went on to explain that an undue hardship is more severe than a mere burden. So even if Title VII said only that an employer need not be made to suffer a “hardship,” an employer could not escape liability simply by showing that an accommodation would impose some sort of additional costs.
Those costs would have to rise to the level of hardship, and adding the modifier “undue” means that the requisite burden, privation, or adversity must rise to an “excessive” or “unjustifiable” level.
How to Best Handle an Accommodation Request?
If for any reason an employer is inclined to deny an employee’s request for a religious accommodation, the better approach is to consult an experienced religious discrimination lawyer for a consultation and verify ahead of time whether or not the proposed or contemplated denial will run afoul of the employer’s obligations under either the FEHA or Title VII.