Last week I wrote about a religious discrimination case where an employer snatched victory from the jaws of defeat at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. This week, we have a Fifth Circuit opinion where the court took away an employer’s victory in another religious discrimination case and sent the case back to the trial court for trial. Today’s case should remind employers of their religious accommodation obligations and how those obligations may differ from reasonable accommodations required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In Davis v. Fort Bend County, Fort Bend County was scheduled to install a computer network and audiovisual system in the newly build Fort Bend County Justice Center. Lois Davis was a four year employee of the County IT department. All technical support employees were required to participate in the installation that was scheduled for the July 4th weekend. One week before the installation project, Davis told her supervisor she could not attend on Sunday, July 3rd due to a previously scheduled religious commitment. The religious commitment was the ground breaking of a new church and feeding the community. Davis told her supervisor that the commitment was a special church service but that she was more than willing to come in after church services. She also had arranged for a replacement during her absence as she had done in the past. Her supervisor did not approve the absence and told Davis that her absence would be grounds for discipline. When Davis attended her religious event rather than the IT installation, the County terminated her employment.

The trial court granted the County’s motion for summary judgment concluding that Davis’ absence from work was due to a personal commitment rather than a religious committment and noted that being an avid and active member of a church did not elevate every activity associated with the church to a legally protectable religious practice. The court of appeals rejected this conclusion observing that the proper inquiry was not whether the July 3rd event was itself a religious event but whether Davis sincerely believed it to be religious in her own belief system. The appellate court also went on to state that an employee’s sincerity of her religious practice is largely a matter of individual credibility and the judicial inquiry into the sincerity of that belief should be handled with a “light touch” or “judicial shyness.” Applying these standards to the record evidence, the court of appeals held that the employer’s victory had to be reversed and the case sent back to the trial court for a potential trial on the merits.

What Davis should remind employers is that there are significant differences in handling employee’s request for accommodation of their religious beliefs and accommodations required under the ADA. 

A few thoughts about Title VII’s religious obligations for employers:

  • Treating all employees the same despite their religious beliefs can lead to discrimination claims;
  • It is difficult to challenge the sincerity of an employee’s religious belief;
  • Virtually any religion, moral or belief system will qualify as a Title VII religion (e.g., Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster);
  • Employers have an obligation to accommodate the known, sincerely held religious beliefs that conflict with an employee’s work obligations;
  • Reasonable accommodations that pose an undue hardship need not be granted.
  • Under Title VII, undue hardship includes any accommodation that is more than de minimis expense.

Employers may consider a variety of accommodations that might not constitute an undue hardship under the right circumstances including:

  • Voluntary Substitutes or Job Swaps;
  • Flexible scheduling;
  • Job transfers and reassignments;
  • Use of paid time off (e.g., vacation) or unpaid time off;
  • Dress and Grooming Code Changes

You can download a complete copy of Davis v. Fort Bend County here [.pdf].

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