The free practice of religion is one of the core principles that our country is founded upon. A number of our laws protect religious institutions from government encroachment, and our Constitution speaks directly to the paramount freedom our citizens are allowed in practicing whatever requirements their particular religions require.
In keeping with those principles the United States Congress, as well as the Kentucky legislature, have provided a number of protections for religious workers in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, respectively.

Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s … religion[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–2(a)(1). With some exceptions, an employer is required to make reasonable accommodations for the religious practices of its employees. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j). The Kentucky Civil Rights Act offers similar protection, as it was crafted to essentially mirror the protections offered by Title VII.

What kind of practices are protected under these laws? Title VII defines the term “religion” as “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief […]” With such broad language, Title VII basically offers protection for any practice that is related to a person’s religion, and in any way — observance of a day of rest; wearing symbolic religious accessories; required clothing or hairstyles, etc.

Unfortunately for many religious workers, the economic demands of their employers can often clash with the activities or practices their religions require of them. The most frequent causes of these conflicts arise from the examples provided a moment ago – Sabbath observance, religious dress, or grooming standards. Although employers are required to offer reasonable accommodations to employees regarding these practices, cases arise in which they do not. As can be imagined, these conflicts can often result in discipline, termination, or resignation.

Under the law, however, employees who have been terminated or disciplined for refusing to abandon their religious beliefs can bring a cause of action against their employers for discrimination. In order to establish a claim of discrimination based on a failure to accommodate, a plaintiff must show that: (1) he or she holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement; (2) he or she informed his or her employer about the conflict; and (3) he or she was discharged or disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting requirement. Smith v. Pyro Mining Co., 827 F.2d 1081, 1085 (6th Cir. 1987).

If those elements are met, an employer can defend itself by showing that it could not accommodate the plaintiff’s religious practices without suffering an “undue hardship.” Undue hardship is any type of cost to an employer that is more than minimal. While that definition might seem like it provides employers with an easy out, courts often have different ideas about what minimal hardship consists of.

Take the case of Draper v. U.S. Pipe & Foundry Co., 527 F.2d 515 (6th Cir. 1975) for example. In this case, Mr. Draper was an electrician working for a manufacturing plant. Mr. Draper’s beliefs prohibited from working between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. His employer was able to accommodate this practice for a while by moving him to an earlier shift. However, when the company needed to expand its hours into Saturday during the daytime, the company rescinded on its accommodation, and scheduled Mr. Draper for work on Saturday mornings. When Mr. Draper refused to come in, he was terminated.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Draper had been discriminated against, and that his employer had not offered to reasonably accommodate his religious practice. The company argued that it could not offer Mr. Draper any accommodation because it would result in an undue hardship to the company. It suggested that allowing Mr. Draper to modify his schedule around his practices would result in shift changes that some employees might not like. It also argued that providing this accommodation would result in extremely long hours for other electricians. Finally, it stated that the accommodation would have given preference to Mr. Draper over other employees in violation of overtime procedures located in the employees’ collective bargaining agreement.

The Sixth Circuit found these arguments to be unpersuasive, finding that some employee “grumbling” did not constitute an undue hardship, as well as finding that there was no evidence to support the company’s other two arguments. Without any undue hardship, the company’s failure to accommodate Mr. Draper’s practices, coupled with his termination, constituted unlawful discrimination against Mr. Draper.

Unfortunately, Mr. Draper’s case is not all that uncommon. Case law shows incident after incident in which employers fail to accommodate the religious practices of their employees. Thanks to Title VII and the KCRA, however, religious workers aren’t powerless if they are discriminated against – they have options.