When an employee requests a religious accommodation to an employment policy, the law only requires the employer to offer a reasonable accommodation that protects the employee’s religious interests. It does not require employers to provide the specific accommodation requested by the employee.
This principle was recently reaffirmed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Although this decision doesn’t specifically cover Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., it appears to reflect a general consensus on the law and could be used as persuasive authority in our federal courts.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on religion. Employees are generally free to exercise their religion, including being accorded reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs and practices, as long as the accommodation would not place an undue burden on the employer.
The case before the Fifth Circuit involved a firefighter who was also an ordained Baptist minister. He was hired in 2012 and, in 2014, he received an exemption from a required flu vaccination based on his religious beliefs. He was expected to wear personal protective equipment at all times to avoid spreading the flu.
In 2015, the plaintiff was promoted to driver/pump operator, a first responder position. The next year, the city began requiring a tetanus/diphtheria/pertussis vaccine for this position. The firefighter requested a religious exemption.
The city offered to reassign the man to a code enforcement position, which would not require the vaccine, at the same pay and benefits. In the alternative, it would allow him to remain at his driver/pump operator job as long as he agreed to wear protective equipment, including a respirator, whenever he was on duty, kept a log of his temperature, and submitted to specific disease testing when appropriate.
The firefighter counter-proposed that he remain in his position and only wear the respirator when he encountered patients who might have one of the diseases the vaccine would prevent. The city reiterated its previous position. When the firefighter requested evidence that wearing a respirator would keep him from transmitting diseases, the city found him to be in violation of his directive and fired him.
Accommodation need only be reasonable
He sued, alleging discrimination under Title VII, retaliation and violation of his First Amendment right to the free exercise of his religion. The court immediately ruled against him, finding that the accommodations offered by the city were reasonable and would have protected his free exercise of religion.
Title VII doesn’t require employers to offer the specific religious accommodation requested by the employee, but only a reasonable accommodation that would meet the employee’s stated needs. His firing was found reasonable.