A California Court of Appeal has opined that an employer’s duty to accommodate religious observances extends to an employee’s request to attend a three day religious convention even if attendance is not mandated by the religion. The Court found that the duty to accommodate was triggered so long as the desire to attend the convention, or other observance, flows from a sincerely held religious belief.
The case, California FEHC v. Gemini Aluminum Corp., involved a long-term Jehovah’s Witness named Lester Young who requested a Friday and Saturday off in order to attend an annual three-day convention. Attendance at the convention, while not mandated by the tenets of his religion, is considered a form of worship and religious study. Young had been a Jehovah’s Witness and attended nearly every annual convention since 1970. He had been employed by Gemini Aluminum Corp. for approximately 15 months when he requested the time off. Gemini Aluminum Corp. summarily denied Young’s request for days off and then terminated Young for taking the requested days off in contravention of his denied request.
The Court of Appeals opined that employers must accommodate any “sincerely held” religious belief or observance if reasonably possible without undue hardship. The observance need not stem from a “temporal mandate” under the tenets of the religion at issue. Likewise, it is not up to employers or the Courts to determine and judge the veracity of beliefs or observances.
As soon as an employer becomes aware of a sincerely held belief that conflicts with a requirement of employment, the employer must begin to explore all possible methods of reasonable accommodation. Moreover, notice to the employer does not require a complex explanation justifying the significance of the observance. The employee need only “cite a religious connection” to a supervisor. Because Gemini Aluminum Corp. did nothing to explore accommodation options after learning of Young’s request for time off, it violated the law.
As illustrated by this case, the area of reasonable accommodation, both for religion and disability, is complex and littered with traps for the unwary employer. Before denying any request from an employee connected with religion, health, or medical conditions, all employers should consult with knowledgeable human resources staff or counsel.