Religious accommodation is a major issue within the federal workplace. Consequently, clients frequently ask, Can a federal employer deny my religious accommodation request?

The simple answer to this question is yes; federal employers can deny religious accommodation requests. However, they cannot do so for an arbitrary or random reason. Instead, they must meet a certain legal standard before rejecting a religious accommodation request.

In this article, our accommodation lawyers cover the legal standard for refusing a religious accommodation request, and we’ll touch on what you can do when your religious accommodation request gets denied. 

For more information or to request a consultation, please contact our firm online or call (800) 801-0598 today.

What Is the Current Federal Religious Accommodation Policy?

Thanks to the recent unanimous Supreme Court decision in the case Groff v. U.S. Postal Service, it is now more difficult for employers to deny a request for religious accommodations.

Prior to this decision, courts applied the de minimis standard. Practically, this meant that the law was on the side of the employer, and the employee generally faced an uphill battle to vindicate their religious rights.

However, in Groff, the Supreme Court decided that the de minimis standard was not the correct standard for evaluating religious accommodation requests.

Instead, it mandated that employers show that the request would cause “substantially increased costs in relation to the conduct of the employer’s business.” In effect, this new precedent makes it harder for employers to refuse religious accommodation requests and easier for employees to prevail.

While some people have criticized the Court for not taking on the case law and mirroring the Disability Related Federal case law we still believe the Court has made a clear statement that the Courts must take a much stronger stand than the previous de minimis standard, something more akin to the disability undue hardship standard. Of course, this all remains to be seen as it plays out in the courts.

Examples of Potentially Legal Religious Accommodation Denials

Notwithstanding the ambiguity of the new decision, we can discuss several religious reasonable accommodation situations that would likely be acceptable under the Groff standard. 

Example #1: The Navy’s Safety Concerns

Omar is a practicing Sikh who is a civilian employee for the Department of the Navy. As a welder at one of the Navy’s shipyards, Omar has to work in dangerous environments that require a helmet due to the risk of falling objects. Omar requests an accommodation to wear his turban instead of a safety helmet, citing his religious beliefs.

While Omar’s supervisor respects his religious commitment to wearing a turban, he reiterates to Omar that his primary concern in the shipyard is the safety of its workers. The safety helmet is a standardized piece of equipment that protects against specific hazards in the shipyard.

Allowing Omar or any employee to wear an alternative would compromise their safety, leading to potentially severe injuries. In such situations, the immediate risk to personal safety can justify denying the accommodation request.

However, Omar’s supervisor offers Omar a transfer to an equally well-paying position in an office environment as an alternative accommodation.

Example #2: Daniel’s Quandary at the VA

Daniel is a devout Jewish man who works as a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) paramedic. His job requires him to work in an emergency medical service. Furthermore, one of his duties is to be available for emergency calls 24 hours a day during one of his shifts.

Daniel requests not to have shifts from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. He also requests that he receive no work during major Jewish holidays so that he can observe his religious practices.

Daniel’s supervisor gives the request some deep thought. Although he wants to grant Daniel’s request, Daniel’s team of eight is down to only three people because of a wave of resignations. Daniel has to be scheduled for occasional Saturdays to prevent a lack of coverage.

If Daniel is regularly unavailable during specific times, it could strain the system and lead to a loss of life. Therefore, Daniel’s supervisor temporarily denied the request. However, he tells Daniel that he will grant Daniel’s request as soon as the team has five or more workers. 

[DOWNLOAD] Reasonable Accommodations for Federal Employees

Examples of Wrongful Religious Accommodation Denials

It can be difficult to visualize real-world situations of wrongful religious accommodation denials. But let’s look at two possible scenarios.

Wrongful Denial Example #1: Carlos’s Religious Holiday

Carlos is a practicing Catholic working for the Department of the Treasury.

Earlier this year, he requested a day off to observe Good Friday. When his employer expressed reluctance, Carlos offered to make up the time on another day and find someone to cover his shift.

However, his boss denied his request, expressing the belief that Good Friday “really shouldn’t be that important for anyone.”

Wrongful Denial Example #2: Rachel’s Dietary Request

Rachel is an Orthodox Jewish woman who works as an attorney for the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Last month, her office held a week-long in-house conference with catered food. The week before the conference, Rachel found out there were no kosher meal options, so she requested one.

However, her employer refused, even after Rachel offered to bring in her own kosher food at her own expense.

These are just two hypothetical examples. However, religious accommodation denials can come in endless shapes and sizes.

When Should I Speak with an Attorney?

Maneuvering through the intricacies of religious accommodation in the workplace is especially tricky right now because of the recent holding in Groff.

Consulting an attorney can provide clarity, ensure you know your rights, and help you approach the situation effectively.

Here are specific instances when reaching out to an attorney about your religious accommodation request might be beneficial:

  • Before making a request. Ideally, you should speak with an attorney before filing your request. With the new Groff decision, it’s imperative to contact a skillful attorney who can analyze recent case law and help you understand your legal situation.
  • After the denial of your request. You should contact an attorney as soon as your request for religious accommodation is denied. This is especially true if your employer denies your accommodation request without a valid reason or fails to engage in a constructive dialogue about alternatives.
  • Experience of retaliation. If you’re facing adverse employment actions, an attorney can advise you on the potential recourse available. Adverse actions include demotion, reduced hours, or even termination after making your request.
  • Unclear company policies. Sometimes, company policies regarding religious accommodation might be vague or non-existent. In such cases, an attorney can clarify the policy and serve as your voice for your agency. 
  • Insufficient accommodation. Another common situation is when your employer provides an insufficient or irrelevant accommodation. If your employer provides an accommodation that inadequately addresses your religious needs or creates undue hardship, an attorney can help you craft a sound response. 
  • Broader workplace discrimination. It’s crucial to involve an attorney if you suspect that the denial of your religious accommodation request is not an isolated problem. From time to time, individual denials of religious accommodation requests suggest much greater, systemic forms of discrimination in the workplace. 
  • Filing a claim. If you decide to file a claim with your agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity office, you should contact an attorney. They can help you interact effectively with HR representatives, outside investigators, and hostile management. 

Finally, an attorney can also be invaluable during mediations, counseling sessions, and administrative hearings. Call an attorney right away if your request for religious accommodation leads to one or more of these forms of conflict resolution.

What Can I Do When My Employer Refuses My Religious Accommodation Request?

Thanks to Groff, employees now have a fighting chance when it comes to religious accommodation requests. However, many federal employers may continue to follow the old legal standard and wrongfully deny your religious accommodation request.

If you’ve received a refusal on your religious accommodation request, the following steps should help.

  • Understand your rights. At the heart of this issue is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As stated by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers cannot discriminate against employees based on their religious beliefs, and they must accommodate an employee’s religious practices unless it would pose an undue hardship on their operations.
  • Maintain a detailed record. From the moment you anticipate needing a religious accommodation, document every related interaction. This means keeping a log of verbal discussions, saving emails, and having written proof of the accommodation request. 
  • Seek expert legal counsel. If you believe your employer is infringing on your religious rights, consult with a qualified employment attorney. They can provide clarity on the nuances of your situation, recommend an action plan, and guide you on potential legal remedies.
  • Lodge a formal complaint. If you believe there’s evidence of discrimination or wrongful failure to grant your request, consider filing a complaint with the EEOC. They will conduct an independent investigation and penalize your employer if they find a violation.

Remember, religious accommodation is your legal right, not a privilege or perk. The only way an employer can deny that request is if they show that granting your request will be a significant cost to them.

Has Your Religious Accommodation Request Been Denied? 

If you think that your employer has unjustly denied your religious accommodation request, take action to defend your rights. In addition, contact strong legal counsel to get the representation you deserve. 

Here at Pines Federal, our seasoned legal practitioners understand the intricate interplay of federal employment law and religious rights.

In addition, they are up-to-date on the latest developments within the world of religious accommodation. Allow our seasoned team to guide you through the process so that your employer hears your voice and honors your rights. Don’t wait.

Reach out to us today by calling (800) 801-0598 or filling out our online contact form. Together, we can work together to ensure your workplace respects your faith.