EEOC: Christian Employees Eligible for Religious Accommodation

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Jun 3, 2009
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The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) responds routinely to allegations of religious discrimination on behalf of Muslim, Sikh and Jewish workers. However, it is less common for such a complaint to be filed on behalf of a Christian employee.

In May 2006, Clarence Taylor, a long-term pipe fitter at the oil company ConocoPhillips’ Bayway Refinery in Linden, N.J., was informed that he would be required to work a schedule that would cause him to miss Sunday church services for two months. Taylor, a deacon and lay leader in his congregation, requested a religious accommodation, which was denied.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New Jersey in Newark, the EEOC charges that ConocoPhillips discriminated against Taylor for failing to accommodate his request.

“I was very upset at having to miss church services for a couple of months, and I am grateful that the EEOC took up my case,” Taylor said. “I sincerely hope that other employees at this company and beyond are better informed about their rights to explore seeking a religious accommodation following this case.”

According to a May 28, 2009, EEOC statement, the consent decree settling the suit provides for injunctive relief and policy changes at the company, including revised equal employment policies and procedures, and related training for its managers and line employees.

ConocoPhillips will provide $20,000 to resolve the litigation, including relief for Taylor and a donation to a charity, as well as five days of additional leave time for Taylor.

According to the EEOC Compliance Manual, “religious observances or practices include, for example, attending worship services, praying, wearing religious garb or symbols, displaying religious objects, adhering to certain dietary rules, proselytizing or other forms of religious expression, or refraining from certain activities.” It is not the activity but the employee’s motivation in participating in the activity that determines whether accommodation is warranted, the manual continues: “The same practice might be engaged in by one person for religious reasons and by another person for purely secular reasons.”

“If reasonable alternatives exist, the law does not allow an employer to force an employee to choose between keeping his job and practicing his faith,” said district director Spencer H. Lewis of the EEOC’s New York district office, which has jurisdiction for numerous counties in northern New Jersey.

Although just 41 percent of HR professionals responding to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2008 Religion and Corporate Culture survey said they have a formal means for employees to request religious accommodation, the vast majority of respondents (74 percent) said they do grant religious accommodation requests. And 50 percent of respondents said they provide training on religious diversity for managers and supervisors.

“Employers are obligated to explore reasonable alternative arrangements to attempt to accommodate religious beliefs,” said EEOC senior trial attorney Sunu P. Chandy in the announcement. “There are many avenues available, including shift swapping, flexible scheduling to allow an employee to take off a portion of a workday to attend religious services, the transfer of an employee to a different assignment, or allowing an employee to take vacation time or unpaid leave.”

Such options did exist for Taylor, according to Bob Henegar, a spokesperson for ConocoPhillips, who said that the company disagreed with the charges and was “not thrilled” with the way the EEOC described the case, adding that “it’s not exactly correct.”

“We are committed to fair and nondiscriminatory treatment,” Henegar told SHRM Online. “A long-term employee knew there were avenues to take and didn’t take them.” The nature of a 24/7 operation means that employees will occasionally be pushed to shifts that interfere with other activities, he added. Though work practices vary by location, he said, employees typically find a co-worker to fill their slot when they have a conflict.

The company did not admit liability, Henegar noted. It made a business decision to settle the case, update its policy and make a charitable donation.

The EEOC received over 3,000 religion-based charges in fiscal year 2008, which resulted in $7.5 million in monetary benefits for successful claimants.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager at SHRM.

Related Resources:

Religion at Work, HR Magazine, December 2008

Religion and Corporate Culture: Accommodating Religious Diversity in the Workplace, SHRM Research, October 2008

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