I now have a new favorite religious discrimination case. It was just reported that a federal appeals court has ruled that an employee who took several weeks of unauthorized leave to bury his father in Nigeria is entitled to a trial on his religious discrimination claim. He had made two requests for 4 to 5 weeks of unpaid leave because the funeral ceremony involved sacrificing goats in the third week, giving his mother a haircut and anointing her head with snail oil, and parading through the village. Adeyeye v. Heartland Sweeteners, LLC, No. 12-3820 (7th Cir. July 31, 2013).
As reported, the employee and his family practiced a blend of Christianity and local religion, and specific religious practices in his village are determined by the father, as head of the household. The lower court had ruled against the employee on the ground that he had failed to state that his request was for a religious accommodation. The appeals court, noting that his request referred to “ceremonies and rites,” decided that the employer had enough information to inquire further whether the request was religious in nature.
The court, in one sentence that could expand these religious discrimination claims, said that the “protections of Title VII are not limited to familiar religions.” Fair enough, but is there a limit? What if the ceremony involved beating children, or the religion advocated racial intolerance?
The court also rejected the argument that this employee was observing his father’s religious beliefs, not his own. The court said there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find that these religious rites were part of the employee’s religious practices, not just his father’s. The court left open the possibility that observing a family member’s religious practices may have to be accommodated.
The issue of undue hardship, which creates a limit on what an employee can demand as part of a religious accommodation, was not an issue in this case. It was clear that the business could accommodate the request without causing any serious problems with its business. Therefore, the only issue was whether this was a religious practice that had to be accommodated.
While I agree that limiting religious accommodation to mainstream religions is too narrow an interpretation, what about pagan rituals or rituals with practices offensive to the mainstream. A court not too long ago recognized Veganism as a possible religious belief, which would certainly run counter to animal sacrifice practices. Many years ago, when I was in law school, a case was decided where a group of prisoners wanted to have their dietary requirements accommodated because they had formed a religion. In that religion, there was a requirement that certain meals include steak and Harvey’s Bristol Cream. The court had no trouble dismissing the action. Accommodation has to have some limits, or so I thought.
If an employee asks for an accommodation for what may rise to the level of a religious belief, it is now more difficult to dismiss the request because of its weirdness factor. If the accommodation will not create an undue hardship, prudence may dictate that you do it. Just make sure you serve the steak medium rare and the Harvey’s well chilled.