Apr 15, 2001 Employment Discrimination

Title VII Requires Employers to Accommodate Religious Practices, Not Preferences

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are obligated to reasonably accommodate their employees’ religious practices. A recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit illustrates the limits of this obligation. The court ruled that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not discriminate against an Orthodox Jewish doctor when it denied her extra leave time on Friday to prepare for Sabbath beginning Friday at sundown, when the preparation could easily have been done earlier in the week. Dachman v. Shalala, 2001 U.S. App. Lexis 9888 (4th Cir. May 18, 2001).

It was undisputed that the employer gave the plaintiff, Rebecca Dachman, an extra two hours leave on Fridays because she was unable to work or travel after sundown. Dachman claimed, however, that she needed additional time off on Fridays to perform various Sabbath-related activities, such as picking up Challah bread from a Jewish bakery, cooking the food that would be eaten on both Friday and Saturday, and determining which appliances would be hooked up to the electricity for the Sabbath.
When the FDA denied Dachman’s request for additional time off on Fridays, she brought suit under Title VII.

Rejecting Dachman’s claim, the court ruled that the employer was not required to give Dachman additional leave to enable her to prepare for the holiday on Friday afternoons rather than on other days. “While an employer has a duty to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs,” the court wrote, “the employer does not have a duty to accommodate an employee’s preferences.” The court found that Dachman’s own testimony supported the conclusion that picking up Challah and cooking on Friday, among other things, were activities that could be performed earlier in the week. Dachman’s preference for performing those tasks on Friday did not create a duty to accommodate on the part of her employer.

The Dachman case illustrates that an employer is not required to grant time off or any other religious-based request for an accommodation where the accommodation is sought merely to fulfill the employee’s preferences rather than to make it possible to practice his or her religion. Nevertheless, an employer should proceed with caution in denying such an accommodation, since the determination whether the employer has fulfilled its duty to accommodate under Title VII frequently turns on the precise facts and circumstances at issue in the particular situation.