When You Can Accommodate Your Employees' Religious Beliefs at No Cost or Disruption
By Michael Cork
The complaint alleges that Saint Vincent maintains a policy providing for the accommodation requested—face masks—based upon sincerely-held religious beliefs or medical reasons. According to EEOC District Director Spencer H. Lewis Jr., the case represents "a classic example of how an employer could have accommodated an employee's religious beliefs at no cost or disruption, but instead chose the costly route of discrimination." Hospital representative Monica Lewis said "[w]e respectfully disagree with the EEOC’s position and characterization of how the employee claims outlined in its lawsuit were handled …."
When addressing requests for religious accommodations, employers may inquire as to the nature of the religious belief(s) and alleged conflict with the work-requirement, in order to analyze the requested accommodation and the need for any accommodation. And the employer may inquire about the sincerity of the beliefs in question. But the accommodation does not depend on whether the employer agrees with the employee's religious beliefs, or whether those beliefs are recognized by, or the official doctrine of, any established religion. That the employer finds the beliefs in question peculiar or idiosyncratic is of no consequence.
Once the employee demonstrates a sincerely-held religious belief that conflicts with a work-requirement, the employer is obligated to accommodate that belief, not necessarily with the employee's requested accommodation, but with an effective means of addressing the issue. One defense available to the employer is that of "undue hardship" in accommodating the religious belief. "Undue hardship" in the Title VII–religion context is different from "undue hardship" under the Americans with Disabilities Act. An employer claiming undue hardship as to a requested religious accommodation need only show that the accommodation involves a de minimis amount of additional cost.
Here, if the facts alleged are true or mostly true, Saint Vincent may have difficulty claiming undue hardship. During the same relevant time period, the hospital provided the inexpensive "face-mask" accommodation to fourteen employees seeking medical exemptions, but it denied all eleven requests for the same accommodation based on religious beliefs.
If successful, the EEOC's action against Saint Vincent Health Center could have a broader impact. Saint Vincent is affiliated with the Alleghany Health Network, a subsidiary of Highmark, Inc., the largest health insurer in Pennsylvania.
This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be treated or interpreted as legal advice. For specific advice, contact the attorney of your choice.
by Michael Cork, Esq.