Protection for Religious Holidays?

Do employers have to allow employees to have religious holidays off?

Protections Under Title VII

If an employer has 15 or more employees, they must provide reasonable accommodation for employees who wish to observe religious holidays. Even employers with fewer than 15 employees may need to comply with state or local anti-discrimination laws, so it’s a best practice not to deny an employee’s request too hastily.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides employees with protections for their sincerely held religious beliefs. This includes time off to observe religious holidays as long as it doesn’t create an undue hardship for the employer.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines religion as “not only traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others.”

How would an employer handle requests for time off for religious holidays?

Given how broad the EEOC’s definition of religion is, employers generally have no reason to question the validity of an employee’s request to take time off for a religious holiday. The exception to this would be if the employer has a bona fide doubt about the basis for an accommodation, they can make a limited inquiry into the facts and circumstances of the employee’s claim that the underlying religious belief is sincerely held and would justify the need for accommodation.

However, the utmost caution should be exercised, as these types of inquiries can lead to potential lawsuits if the employer does not have a bona fide doubt to question the sincerely held belief.

Employers should consider how to accommodate the employee and whether doing so creates an undue hardship on the company. The EEOC explains that undue hardship is posed if it:

  • is too costly
  • compromises workplace safety
  • decreases workplace efficiency
  • infringes on the rights of other employees
  • requires other employees to perform more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.

It is recommended that employers establish a neutral system for reviewing requests, where submissions are decided based on seniority or by the date they were received. If many employees seek time off to observe the same religious holiday, the employer might consider offering full-day or half-day leaves, flexible start or stop times, voluntary shift swaps, makeup time, or floating holidays. Employees also could use accrued paid-time-off benefits. When no paid leave is available, the employer could offer workers time off without pay.

Author: Arwyn Robinson – SHRM CP

Additional Resources:

Religious Holidays

Employee Protection for Religious Holidays

Holiday Undue Hardship

Time off for religious Holidays

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