A recent settlement secured by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) provides a basic lesson on how not to respond to requests for religious accommodation.
The case involved Sylvia Coleman, who worked as a detention officer for the Lansing police department, which is in Michigan.
Coleman is a Seventh-Day Adventist, a fact she says she made clear both during the application process and then again on her first day of work.
Religious accommodation is sought
She says she specifically told the city that due to her religious beliefs, she could not work a shift from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday because she observes the Sabbath during that time.
Coleman adds that instead of attempting to accommodate her need to avoid working during that time, the city terminated her employment – without showing that granting the requested accommodation would result in an undue hardship.
She proceeded to file an administrative charge of unlawful bias with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which passed the case along to the DOJ for enforcement because the city is a public entity.
The DOJ eventually proceeded to file a court complaint on Coleman’s behalf, accusing the city of violating Title VII by denying her the requested accommodation without showing undue hardship.
After the complaint was filed and Coleman intervened, the city fought back with a counterclaim – asserting that Coleman engaged in fraudulent misrepresentation on her employment application and during the interview process.
The DOJ then amended its complaint to add an allegation that the filing of the counterclaim was a retaliatory response to Coleman’s decision to intervene in the suit.
No admission of liability
Without admitting to liability, the city agreed to resolve the suit.
First, it agreed to pay Coleman a total of $50,000, including $10,000 in back pay and $40,000 in non-economic compensatory damages.
The city further agreed to furnish injunctive relief. Specifically, it agreed not to engage in any act or practice that discriminates against any applicant or employee based on their religion.
It further agreed not to retaliate against any person based on their complaints about alleged religious discrimination or their request for a religious accommodation.
In addition, the city agreed to revamp its policies and procedures relating to religious discrimination and accommodation.
It specifically agreed that the new policy will incorporate a number of specific elements, including:
- A ban on religious discrimination.
- An explanation of the people covered by Title VII.
- An explanation of what “religion” means in the context of Title VII.
- A statement that the city must reasonably accommodate requests for religious accommodation.
- A description of how to make a request for religious accommodation.
- The designation of a religious accommodation coordinator.
- A description of procedures that will be followed when a request for religious accommodation is made.
- A description of the process to be used to make an internal complaint about religious accommodation issues.
- A provision that says employees who engage in religious discrimination will be disciplined.
- A requirement that supervisors who learn of possible religious discrimination report and address it promptly, and
- A statement that supervisors will be evaluated, in part, based on their compliance with the city’s religious accommodation policy.
The city separately agreed to develop and revise its policies and procedures relating to retaliation.
It will also provide training regarding its newly developed procedures.
Once an employee asks for a job accommodation based on a sincerely held religious belief, employers covered by Title VII should engage in an interactive process to determine whether a suitable accommodation can be provided without causing undue hardship.
What is ‘undue hardship’?
At present, “undue hardship” means anything more than a “de minimis” cost – a relatively easy standard for employers to meet.
But it is a standard whose days may be numbered.
In mid-April, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Gerald Groff, a Sunday Sabbath observer who sued the postal service after a dispute about working on Sundays.
The high court agreed to decide whether that test should be abandoned in favor of one that places a heavier burden on employers to accommodate religious accommodation requests.