Employers Attempt to Balance Work and Religion ; Complaints Alleging Religious Discrimination Have Risen 75 Percent in the Past Decade

By Neal Learner Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 12, 2004 | Go to article overview

Employers Attempt to Balance Work and Religion ; Complaints Alleging Religious Discrimination Have Risen 75 Percent in the Past Decade


Neal Learner Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Aiming to catch more customers, Bank One Corp. recently opened its Phoenix supermarket branches on Sundays - one of the busiest grocery shopping days of the week. But when bank employees learned of the new shift, not all cheered. One teller refused to work the hours, telling his supervisors it violated his religious beliefs.

"They said everyone has to work at least some time on Sunday," recalls the employee, who asked not to be identified. "Their reasoning is that by allowing someone to be out on Sunday, that would show favoritism to that religion. I told them, 'OK, I'll either have to change to another branch office that isn't open on Sunday or find another job."

The employee's religion-versus-work dilemma highlights a growing challenge in the American workplace. Disputes over providing religious accommodations at work have increased - not only for Christians but also for America's increasingly diverse religious adherents. And the burden falls hardest on small businesses.

"It's a common situation, regardless of the size of the business or type of business, and regardless of whether it's 24/7 or 9-to- 5," says Jeanne Goldberg, senior attorney adviser for the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC in fiscal year 2003 received 2,532 charges alleging religious discrimination - a 75 percent jump over the 1,449 complaints filed in 1993. By contrast, race-based charges, while more numerous, have declined somewhat over the 10-year period, with 28,526 charges filed in 2003 compared with 31,695 in 1993.

A typical religious accommodation charge involves an employee seeking to swap shifts with another employee to attend a Sabbath observance, explains Ms. Goldberg. "They've arranged the accommodation on their own, but the employer will not permit that voluntary swap," she says. "It's a very common type of claim."

For years, Christians have filed complaints about working on Sundays and Jews about Saturday shifts, says Peggy Mastroianni, EEOC's associate legal counsel. "Now the other kind of case we're seeing ... is Muslim employees who need to go to prayer on Friday. They may not need the entire day off, but it might be a two- to three-hour period in the middle of the day."

Making accommodations

Federal law requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers' religious needs, unless it imposes an undue hardship on the company. Most cases that end up in court involve disputes over what constitutes an undue hardship, Goldberg says.

As a whole, employers do a good job of making accommodations for once-a-year events, says Lorraine Mixon-Page, former chairwoman of the workplace diversity committee at the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. …

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