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The Five Week Funeral



By Robert Crump

Court holds that employer failed to accommodate employee’s religious beliefs
A Nigerian-American employee requested five weeks of unpaid leave to attend his father’s funeral overseas. In the written request, the employee wrote, “This is very important to me to be there in order to participate in the funeral rite according to our custom and tradition.” The request also detailed why the ceremony would take five weeks to complete, which included, among other things, ritual animal sacrifice. He even explained his participation in the funeral ceremonies was “compulsory” and if he failed to lead the burial rites, he and his family would suffer at least a spiritual death. The company denied his request. Even though his initial request and a follow up request, asking for three weeks unpaid and one week paid vacation, were denied, the employee followed the dictates of his faith and attended the rites anyway. As a result, the company terminated his employment.

The fired employee sued the company under Title VII, claiming they failed to provide reasonable accommodations for his religion. In its decision, the court acknowledged the hardships extended absences create for employers. However, in this case, the employee acted as a material handler and packer and the factory where the employee worked was staffed with a high percentage of temporary workers with a high turnover. Therefore, under the facts of the case, the court found no basis for a hardship claim because the employee could easily be replaced by temporary replacement workers during his absence. Therefore, the company was unable to establish a defense it had suffered undue hardship through the employee’s absence.

In reaching the decision, the court relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decades-old formula from U.S. v. Seeger, which concerned a military draft and a conscientious objector: “In such an intensely personal area, of course, the claim of the registrant that his belief is an essential part of a religious faith must be given great weight… The validity of what he believes may not be questioned.” Under this standard, the court decided there was evidence the employee’s religious beliefs were sincerely held, despite the obscurity of the claimed beliefs.

Finally, the court addressed one of the company’s arguments that appeared to really try its patience: the company complained it would be a “reasonable accommodation” for the employer to offer the employee a chance to quit for the duration of the overseas ritual, then reapply for his position. In dismissing this theory, the court noted, in no uncertain terms, that Title VII does not contemplate asking employees to sacrifice their jobs to observe religious practices. Quite the opposite, Title VII is designed to ensure employees would not have to sacrifice their jobs to observe religious obligations. An option of voluntary termination with the opportunity to reapply is not a reasonable accommodation.

Scope of Title VII protections can be quite broad where sincere beliefs are concerned
This decision serves to highlight the respect employers must afford their employees when it comes to religious practices. Indeed, it is difficult to challenge the sincerity of an employee’s beliefs, no matter how seemingly bizarre or obscure. In the end, an employer must either provide reasonable accommodations, which can include extended leaves of absence, or demonstrate an undue hardship in doing so. When it comes to religion under the scope of Title VII, employers are still held to a strict standard.

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