Employers responding to an absence request for religious observance need to consistently apply access to leave benefits.
Federal law does not include special leave provisions for religious holidays or observance. However, employers are required by federal law to reasonably accommodate an employee’s request for absence to participate in religious observance.
Accommodations for the employee to be off work are required unless they pose an undue hardship on the employer. The challenge for HR administrators is determining whether a request is for a religious observance and ensuring that the appropriate policy governing the use of personal leave is applied. Each request for leave for religious observance must be individually assessed.
Remember to apply a broad definition of religion
Take care and train HR staff, supervisors, and managers to be mindful of avoiding assumptions or stereotypes about what constitutes a religious belief or what type of accommodation is appropriate.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defines religion broadly and includes:
- Traditional, organized religions
- Religious beliefs that are new or uncommon
- Religious observances outside of a formal church or sect, even when only subscribed to by a small amount of people
- Any belief system that concerns “ultimate ideas” about “life, purpose, and death”
Social, political, or economic philosophies, as well as mere personal preferences, are not considered religious beliefs protected by Title VII.
To pay or not to pay
Leave time granted for religious observances may be paid or unpaid, depending on the provisions of your local policy. You are not required to alter your leave policies and should be consistent in approving personal leave. For example, an employer is not required to allow an employee to use sick leave for a religious observance. Additionally, districts with incentive or bonus plans tied to attendance should know that religious observance days should not be taken into consideration when determining eligibility for an award.
Detailed guidance on religious discrimination is available on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website.
Erin Kolecki is a compensation and HR consultant at TASB HR Services. Send Erin an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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