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Fourth Circuit Finds Religious Accommodation Obligation Does Not Require Waiver of Advance Notice Policy

    Client Alerts
  • February 22, 2017

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation of employees’ religious practices. Perhaps the most common accommodation request involves time away from work based on religious observances. Last month, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) determined that this accommodation obligation does not require employers to waive policies calling for advance notice of employee absences.

In Abeles v. Metro. Wash. Airports Auth., the plaintiff was an Orthodox Jew who for years had requested and had routinely been granted days off from work to observe Jewish holidays. In the last year of her employment, she requested and received approval to miss work for the first two days of Passover. However, she also took the last two days of the holiday away from work, only providing informal notice to her supervisor. The defendant suspended her from work for five days for this policy violation, as well as other conduct issues. She sued under Title VII, claiming that the suspension violated her rights under Title VII.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claim on summary judgment. The court analyzed the plaintiff’s allegations under both the employment discrimination and reasonable accommodation provisions of the religious discrimination portion of Title VII. The plaintiff never offered adequate evidence of discrimination, such as co-workers who were allowed to take leave without advance notice. Responding to the accommodation argument, the Fourth Circuit noted that nothing about the plaintiff’s religious practices prohibited her from providing advance notice of absences. Title VII does not require employers to waive standard policies involved in employees requesting and receiving religious accommodations.

The court also noted that over the long course of the plaintiff’s employment, the employer had never denied a request for leave made with the required advance notice. If employers uniformly enforce these types of time off request policies, employees cannot claim that excusing failure to follow their terms is a form of protected religious accommodation.