Religious accommodation request unclear? Ask for clarification
If an employee asked you for unpaid leave to travel abroad for his father’s funeral and to participate in the burial rites, would you understand that to be a request for a religious accommodation?
If an employee asked you for unpaid leave to travel abroad for his father’s funeral and to participate in the burial rites, would you understand that to be a request for a religious accommodation? One employer didn’t and is being sued by the employee for its failure to accommodate his sincerely held religious beliefs and practices. The employee, born in Nigeria, requested five weeks of leave to return to his home country and participate in a funeral ceremony for his father. He noted that it was very important for him to be there and participate in the funeral rites under his family’s customs and traditions and that if he failed to do so, it could bring further death upon his family. The employer denied his request and terminated the employee when he returned to work following his trip to Nigeria. He sued under Title VII, claiming his employer failed to accommodate his religious beliefs and practices. The court ruled that the employee had given sufficient notice that his request for an accommodation was religious in nature, and that if the employer had any doubt as to whether it was, it had the right and the obligation to ask the employee to clarify his need for leave. The court also noted that a request for an unpaid leave of absence was not necessarily unreasonable as an accommodation. The case has now been sent back to the trial court for further proceedings (Adeyeye v. Heartland Sweeteners, LLC, 7th Cir, July 2013).
Tips: An employee requesting a religious accommodation has an obligation to make the request reasonably clear so that you, as the employer, understand that the request is motivated by a religious belief. Once the employee does so, if you are still uncertain as to the nature of the employee’s request, you have the right (and the obligation) to ask for more information to help you determine the nature of the request. Once you understand the request, don’t dismiss the employee’s request out of hand, until you’ve explored whether it is reasonable, and any possible alternative accommodations. For more information, see Vigilant’s Legal Guide, “Religious Accommodation in the Workplace” (1147). Employers in Oregon should also keep in mind that as of January 1, 2014, eligible employees may take up to two weeks of unpaid bereavement leave per deceased family member, within 60 days of the date the employee receives notice of the death (HB 2950).