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Fourth Circuit Says Partial Religious Accommodation Satisfied Employer's Title VII Obligations

    Client Alerts
  • February 22, 2008

Probably the most commonly requested religious accommodation under Title VII involves time off work for religious observances. A number of religions prohibit work during a weekly Sabbath or during certain holidays.  These religious proscriptions can conflict with an employer’s work schedule and production needs.  In these cases, employers are expected to provide reasonable accommodations to allow the employee flexibility to observe religious practices while not unduly interfering with the business.


A new case from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North and South Carolina), EEOC v. Firestone Fibers & Textiles Co., discusses the extent to which employers must accommodate such time off requests.  The claim was filed by the EEOC on behalf of a Firestone employee whose shift changed due to layoffs and subsequent bumping under the terms of the union agreement at the facility.  As a consequence, the employee moved to a shift that required him to work on his weekly observed Sabbath.


Firestone tried a number of methods to accommodate the employee’s religious observances.  These included use of paid time-off, voluntary shift swaps, and exploration of other available jobs and shifts.  In the end, the employee was terminated for excessive absenteeism after missing work due to religious observances.  In its suit, the EEOC claimed that Firestone had failed to provide accommodations as required under Title VII, because its efforts only resulted in a partial accommodation of the employee’s needs.


The Fourth Circuit rejected these arguments, affirming summary judgment for Firestone.  In its decision, the court determined that like the ADA, reasonable accommodation under the religious discrimination portion of Title VII by definition only need be “reasonable.”  Accommodations that prove infeasible due to problems for the company, or hardships imposed on other employees are not required.  Thus, if the offered accommodation only partially addresses the employee’s religious needs, absent an alternative full accommodation that does not present an undue hardship, the employer will be deemed to have fulfilled its Title VII obligations.


In this case, Firestone’s policies and procedures allowed the plaintiff significant flexibility for religious or other reasons to be away from work.  While these steps did not provide a permanent and total accommodation for observances of the Sabbath, they were reasonable in nature.  Any steps beyond those offered by Firestone would have created an undue hardship on the company or on other employees required to cover the plaintiff’s shifts.


Unlike the ADA, an employer’s obligation to accommodate religious beliefs or practices under Title VII ends when the request presents more than minor inconveniences or disruptions.  Employers will not be required to violate the terms of a collective bargaining agreement or place significant burdens on other employees to facilitate an accommodation request.