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New York State Human Rights Law Amended to Expand Employers' Obligations to Accommodate Employees' Religious Practices

November 22, 2002

Effective November 16, 2002, the New York State Human Rights Law was amended to prohibit employers from imposing on an employee any term or condition of employment that would require the employee to violate or forego a sincerely held practice of his or her religion. The statute as amended also makes it an unlawful discriminatory practice for an employer to refuse to permit an employee to utilize leave solely because the leave will be used for absence from work to accommodate the employee's religious observance or practice. See New York Executive Law ยง 296(10).

Even before the statute was amended, New York employers were required to make a good faith effort to accommodate an employee's observance of the Sabbath or holy days unless such accommodation would cause undue hardship to the employer. As amended, the statute extends this obligation beyond the Sabbath or holy days, and requires employers to make a "bona fide effort" to accommodate any "sincerely held practice" of an employee's religion. Such sincerely held practices might include wearing certain religious garb or taking time to pray.

The amended statute defines an undue hardship in the context of religious accommodation as "an accommodation requiring significant difficulty or expense." This standard for demonstrating an undue hardship is more stringent than the standard under applicable federal law. (Under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, a requested religious accommodation poses an undue hardship if it imposes more than a "de minimus" cost on the employer.) The following factors are relevant to a determination of undue hardship under New York law: (i) the cost of the accommodation; (ii) the number of employees who will need the accommodation; and (iii) the expense or difficulty incurred by an employer with multiple facilities. Under the amended New York statute, as under federal law, a requested religious accommodation will be deemed to pose an undue hardship if it renders the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job.

To the extent an employer changes an employee's work schedule solely to accommodate that employee's religious observance, the amended statute provides that the employer is not required to pay premium wages for work performed out the employee's normal work schedule.

As amended, the New York State Human Rights Law is now on par with the New York City Human Rights Law, which previously provided the protections described above to employees in New York City.