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Ask an Expert: Religious Holidays

Must employers allow employees to have religious holidays off?

An illustration of a man and a woman with religious symbols on an egg.

​Employers with 15 or more employees must provide reasonable accommodations for workers who wish to observe religious holidays.

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

Even employers with fewer than 15 employees may be subject to state anti-discrimination laws, so it’s wise not to deny a worker’s request too hastily.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which investigates claims of discrimination, 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.”

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

In responding to an employee’s request for time off, an employer should consider how to accommodate the employee and whether doing so creates an undue hardship. EEOC guidance explains that an accommodation would pose an undue hardship 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. 

Employers should establish a neutral system for reviewing requests. Submissions could be 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.  

Barbara J. Holland, SHRM-CP, is an HR Knowledge Advisor for SHRM.

Image by iStock.


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