A "De Minimis" Cost Can be Enough to Defeat a Religious Accommodation Claim

18 November 2013 Labor & Employment Law Perspectives Blog

While many employers are familiar with the phrase “reasonable accommodation” because of the Americans with Disabilities Act and similar state laws, the ADA is not the only employment law that requires employers to make reasonable accommodations. Title VII and similar state laws also obligate employers to reasonably accommodate the “sincerely held religious beliefs” of employees. However, a recent case illustrates that an employer’s accommodation burden for religious practices can be less onerous than its accommodation burdens with respect to disabled individuals.

After working for the Internal Revenue Service for a year, and being required each day to walk through a metal detector as she entered the federal building where she worked, the employee converted to Sikh faith. The religion requires adherents to wear five articles of faith, including an approximately 9-inch kirpan, a Sikh article that resembles a knife or sword that often has an edge that is curved or blunted. Though the employee could pass through the metal detectors with her kirpan without setting off the alarm, when she told her supervisor about the 9-inch kirpan, he said it would be best if she would seek a security waiver. Thereafter, she began wearing a kirpan with a blade approximately 3 inches long, but her employer still objected, pointing to the policy that generally limits dangerous weapons in federal buildings, including knives with blades that are 2.5 inches or longer.

The employee made several arguments in favor of an accommodation, including claiming that a 3-inch kirpan is less dangerous than box cutters or scissors which often have much longer blades, and which are regularly brought into federal buildings. In response, the employer raised two defenses: First, it pointed to the difference between her 3-inch kirpan (which was not permissible under the 2.5-inch policy) and a shorter kirpan (which would have been permissible under the policy). The employer questioned whether the employee had a “sincerely held” religious belief that the longer blade was the minimum needed to comply with her religious beliefs. Predictably, the Court rejected the defense based on the sincerity of the employee’s religious belief, noting that courts almost never uphold legal challenges to the honesty of a person’s religious belief.

However, with respect to the employee’s Title VII claim, the employer’s other defense – that any accommodation would have been imposed more than a “de minimis” cost – was far more successful. Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee on the basis of her religion unless the employer is unable to reasonably accommodate the employee’s religious exercise without undue hardship to its business. However, an accommodation is not required if it imposes more than “de minimis” cost on the employer. In this case, the employee proposed that she could either wear a dulled kirpan blade that was three inches long or otherwise she could work from home. With regard to the “dull blade” proposal, the Court noted that security guards cannot be asked to check blades in federal buildings to assess whether they are sufficiently dull to fall outside the definition of a “dangerous weapon.” Likewise, the employee failed to provide meaningful evidence that she could perform the duties of a revenue agent from home. The Court accordingly dismissed the employee’s Title VII claim.

A practical takeaway from the case is that unlike the ADA, which places a heavy burden on employers to reasonably accommodate based on disability, Title VII places a much lighter burden on employers to reasonably accommodate based on religion. Your labor and employment attorney can help you understand where to draw the line in these cases.

One other item of note from the case is that the Court did not dismiss the employee’s claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That law governs certain federal government policies, including rules governing access to federal government buildings. The Court ruled that further analysis was needed on the question of whether an accommodation could be made under those access rules.

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