Religious Accommodation

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Overview of Washington State Supreme Court rulings on reasonable accommodations for religious practices

On May 22, 2014, the Washington State Supreme Court issued rulings in Kumar v. Gate Gourmet, clarifying employer obligations to accommodate employee religious beliefs and practices. Prior to the Kumar decision, it was unclear, in Washington, if employers were obligated to engage in an interactive process, and reasonably accommodate worker observation of religious beliefs and practices.

The issue of religious accommodation can arise in a variety of contexts. Common circumstances include dietary restrictions, religious requirements to wear a head covering or pray at certain times or requirements to observe a Saturday or Sunday day of rest and abstention from work. These and similar questions can present problems when employee meal options are limited, sufficient workers are needed to staff rush times or there are dress or appearance codes.

Unlike explicit requirements under federal laws, the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) is silent on the question of accommodation for religion. As recently as 2012, Washington courts held that the WLAD provided no legal basis for employees to claim entitlement to accommodation for religious beliefs and practices.

In the Kumar decision, the Washington State Supreme Court, for the first time, held that while the WLAD does not address the question, Washington employers are obliged to engage with employees seeking schedule, dress, or other accommodations due to sincerely held religious beliefs. The Court reasoned the obligation is inherent in the statute and in line with legislative intent to apply the WLAD broadly.

Frequently asked questions about religious accommodation:

Q. What must I do if an employee makes a religious request?

A. If an employee makes a request, you are obliged to engage in a back-and-forth, interactive process with the employee to see what, if any, accommodation is possible. Not every request needs to be granted, but, as a manager, you must identify and discuss potential options with the employee. Religious accommodations should be approached in the same manner that you would approach an employee’s request for a disability accommodation.

Q. What is considered to be a “reasonable” religious accommodation?

A. Like disability accommodations, religious accommodations must be “reasonable.” A requested accommodation that is too much of a burden on the employer will not qualify. The accommodation you give does not have to be what the employee requests. The accommodation you offer will be sufficient if it is determined following discussion with the employee, and is effective to address the employee’s needs.

Q. What if I doubt an employee’s sincerity in making a religious accommodation request?

A. As a manager, you do not need to accept any request at face value. Where there are legitimate and well based reasons to doubt an employee’s sincerity, you may ask the employee for more information to establish that the asserted religious beliefs at issue are in fact held.

Q. What happens if I ignore or fail to respond to a religious accommodation request from an employee?

A. As a manager or supervisor, if you do not respond appropriately, you could expose your restaurant to liability. Restaurant managers and supervisors need to be aware of the new obligation, and they should be trained on how to respond to employee requests. Managers should consult with legal counsel if there are questions on how to address a particular employee’s needs.

Notes:

This brief is based upon a paper on the Kumar rulings by Patrick Pearce, a member at Ogden Murphy Wallace, PLLC, who practices with the firm’s Employment and Labor and Hospitality groups.  He is available at (206) 447-7000 or ppearce@omwlaw.com to address questions on this or other employment and labor law issues.

 

Rev. 9/5/14

 


This article is an excerpt from the Handbook for Excellent Restaurant Operations (HERO), published by the Washington Hospitality Association.  Want a hard copy of the whole manual?  It’s one of the many benefits of becoming a member!  Find out more about joining the Washington Hospitality Association here.

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