Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of religion. The law requires a covered employer to provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s request to participate in a religious observance or practice if an accommodation would not cause the employer undue hardship.
Consider these facts: The employee immigrated to the United States from Nigeria. He requested several weeks of unpaid leave so he could travel to Nigeria to lead his father’s burial rites. He explained to his employer his participation in the funeral ceremonies was “compulsory,” and that if he failed to lead the burial rites, he and his family members would suffer at least spiritual death.
The employer denied the leave request. The employee went to Nigeria anyway, and participated in the ceremonies. Upon his return, the employee was fired.
The employee sued under Title VII, alleging the employer failed to reasonably accommodate his religious beliefs. Initially, the court spent a considerable amount of time discussing whether the employee’s beliefs were religious in nature, and if so, were genuinely believed.
In this regard, the court made it clear Title VII just doesn’t only protect mainstream religious beliefs. Rather, a genuinely held belief that involves matters of the afterlife, spirituality or the soul, among other possibilities, qualifies as religion under Title VII.
The court next considered whether granting the extended unpaid leave created an undue hardship on the employer. Generally, unpaid leave can be a reasonable and generally satisfactory form of accommodation for religious faith and practice. However, it depends on the facts of each case.
The employee requested three weeks of unpaid leave. The job he held had a high turnover and was often filled by temporary workers. The employer had a large pool of temporary workers to draw from. Under these unique circumstances, with the position frequently staffed with temporary employees, the employer could not claim that it would have suffered an undue hardship if it had granted the request for unpaid leave.