Under federal law, an employer generally can't make work-related decisions based upon an employee's religion. Usually, this means an employer has to give its workers some time off from work to practice their faith and celebrate holidays. Employers may face big legal problems and stiff penalties if they don't have a good reason for refusing time off. A recent lawsuit in Connecticut is a good example of those troubles.

Case in Point

There are all sorts of religious-based holidays that may interrupt the usual work schedule. ChristmasChanukah, and Kwanzaa are popular holidays, and many employers make it easy for their workers to enjoy these days. Sometimes, though, an employer doesn't agree with a certain religion or holiday, and there's a problem. For example, a former sales manager of a Bath and Body Works store in Connecticut filed a discrimination lawsuit under Title VII. She claims that she was fired because she took vacation time to celebrate the Wiccan New Year. According to lawsuit, her former bosses allowed her use vacation for the event for the past six years, but her new boss didn't like the idea. The employee claims that she was told she'd need a new career if she took the time off, and when she returned, she was in fact fired. The employee is suing for back pay and other money damages.

The Law

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) is the major federal discrimination law. It illegal for employers to treat workers differently because of certain characteristics, such as sex and race. It also bars discrimination based upon religion.

What does that mean? Many things. It's a complicated area of law, but here are two general rules:

  • Employers can't make it harder for employees of a certain religion to get promoted (or even hired in the first place) or give them better or worse working hours than workers of other religions. They certainly can't fire workers based upon their religion  
  • Employers must reasonably accommodate employees' sincerely held religious practices unless it will cause the employer an undue hardship

A reasonable religious accommodation is any work-related adjustment that'll let an employee practice his religion. Some examples include flexible scheduling ("flex time"), letting workers substitute or swap vacation days, giving unpaid time off, and not scheduling the employee to work on specific days, like his Sabbath.

An undue hardship may be anything that has a negative impact on your business. For example, you may not have to give an employee time off if it would lower efficiency and productivity, make the workplace less safe, or cost the business more than usual administrative costs - like if you'd have to hire a temporary worker to do the employee's job.

Violating Title VII may mean big fines and other costs. An employee who's improperly refused time off or fired because of his religion may be able to get his job back and get paid for the time he was out of work. Most states have laws very similar to Title VII, which may lead to even more fines and costs.

Use Caution

Employers need to be careful when it comes to refusing time off for religious-based holidays. Time off can't be refused simply because the employer doesn't believe in the holiday or religion. But legitimate business reasons are another story. For a retailer, the holidays may be the most important time of the year, and so a full workforce may be necessary. A holiday may just happen to fall at a time when a big contract or project needs to be completed. It's possible to limit time off in these situations.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can a Catholic school refuse to hire a non-Catholic teacher?
  • An employee claims to have converted to the Jewish faith and now he wants to be scheduled off every Saturday. Am I allowed to ask for proof that he's actually a convert?
  • Instead of letting my Muslim workers leave the work site to pray, would it be acceptable if I set aside a place on site where they could pray?

Tagged as: Labor and Employment, Wage and Hour Law, holiday time, labor lawyer