Accommodating Religion in the Workplace

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The United States has more different religious groups than any other country in the world. Navigating the complex world of religion and the workplace is a challenge that all employers face at some time or another. According to Minnesota and federal law, employers must reasonably accommodate employees’ religious observances and practices. Most religious accommodation requests involve employees seeking time off for religious holidays or other religious occasions. However, employees sometimes request accommodations relating to dress or appearance or the type of job they perform.

A religion need not be widely known or accepted for an employee to claim that he or she needs an accommodation for the religion. A court will not delve deeply into how legitimate a religion is, only whether the employee’s religious beliefs are “sincerely held.” Courts have dealt with employees who insisted on wearing facial piercings, tattooing, branding, cutting as members of the Church of Body Modification. The Rastafari religion requires members to wear dreadlocks. Thus, employers who have a company policy for men that no hair may exceed the collar might have to modify that policy in light of an employee who claims that he is a Rastafarian.

Of course, the obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation is like it is with disabled individuals under the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Minnesota Human Rights Act — the accommodation must be provided unless it would impose an undue burden upon the employer. In these cases, there often is no easy answer. However, employers should tread carefully before refusing a request for an accommodation and consider all options.

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