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Prior Religious Accommodation May No Longer Be Reasonable

    Client Alerts
  • November 16, 2007

Employers are required to reasonably accommodate the sincerely held religious practices of an employee or prospective employee, unless doing so would create an undue hardship.  In a recent case, Tepper v. Potter, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that requiring an employee to take days off of work without pay to observe religious practices does not constitute an adverse action or discipline sufficient to state a claim for religious discrimination under Title VII, even though the employer had accommodated the practices in the past.


The employee was a postal carrier who became a Messianic Jew shortly after becoming employed.  His religion recognizes Saturday as the Sabbath, which required the employee to ask for Saturdays off.  For over ten years, the employer accommodated this request.  However, as staffing fell, the employee’s request resulted in significant costs for the employer because other employees were forced to work overtime to cover the Saturday work.  When the employer revoked the employee’s accommodation, the employee sued.


The employee argued that the employer forced him to take days of work without pay in order to avoid Saturday work and that these days off ultimately reduced his annual pay and pension.  The court rejected this argument and held that the employer’s actions in revoking the employee’s accommodation were not illegal and the employee was not discriminated against on the basis of his religion.


On the religious accommodation claim, the court reasoned that unpaid leave is merely a loss of income for the period the employee does not work and therefore, does not constitute disciplinary action.  On the discrimination claim, the Sixth Circuit concluded that the removal of the accommodation did not result in a change of title, job status, pay or job responsibilities and conditions.  The court stated that while the employee now had to work on Saturdays, this was always a requirement of the job and not an adverse change in employment


This case demonstrates that accommodations of religious beliefs do not have to be permanent.  If business circumstances change, accommodations deemed reasonable in the past may now present an undue hardship to the employer.  While the employer should work with the employee to determine if alternative accommodations are available, the employee has no vested right to the previous job changes.