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Seventh Circuit Says Title VII's Religious Accommodation Obligation Does Not Extend Beyond Minimal Burdens

    Client Alerts
  • April 09, 2021

Title VII requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to allow employees to work in ways compatible with their religious beliefs and practices. However, for decades, federal courts have interpreted this obligation as significantly less than that imposed on employers accommodating disabled employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This difference was highlighted in a recent case from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

In EEOC v. Walmart Stores East, L.P., a Seventh Day Adventist applied for an assistant manager position with Walmart. He requested an accommodation that would not schedule him to work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. The store is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and employs eight assistant managers. Walmart denied the request on the basis that it presented an undue burden on the store and to other assistant managers. The EEOC sued on behalf of the plaintiff, but the federal district court granted summary judgment to Walmart.

In a 2-1 decision, a Seventh Circuit panel affirmed this decision. The court noted that granting the requested accommodation would result in one of three results: other co-workers having to work an additional weekend shift every 10 weeks, Walmart having to hire an additional manager, or the store going understaffed on some weekends. Each of these outcomes exceeds the minimal accommodation burden imposed under Title VII. The Seventh Circuit rejected the EEOC’s argument that the plaintiff be allowed to seek voluntary shift swaps with other managers, noting that this would either be ineffective or would place burdens on other employees.

The dissenting judge believed that Walmart had not done enough to explore alternate accommodations such as interviewing other assistant managers regarding their shift preferences. This case demonstrates the growing tensions between employers and advocates for stronger workplace religious protections. Those advocates argue that Title VII’s accommodation obligations should be interpreted more closely to that under the ADA, and that employers should be required to demonstrate a substantial burden before rejecting a request. This week in a different case, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to revisit its earlier opinions on this burden, despite a strong objection from Justices Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito.