Given the current political and cultural ferment in this country, it should come as no surprise that claims of religious discrimination, long on the backburner in employment discrimination law, are increasing.  In fact, the EEOC reports a doubling of such filed claims in the last decade.

Under federal law, an employer must make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs unless it creates an undue hardship. Federal and local laws (and courts) have, up until now, kept the threshold of what was considered to be an undue hardship fairly low.  

The New York City Council, which has been in the forefront of strengthening employment anti-discrimination laws, recently voted to amend the city’s administrative code so as to raise this threshold well beyond the requirements of federal law.  Local Law Int. No. 632-A.   The result would be an increased burden on employers as to what constitutes undue hardship.

Currently, section 8-107(3)(b) of the City’s Human Rights Law provides little guidance.  It states that "reasonable accommodation" shall mean “such accommodation to an employee's or prospective employee's religious observance or practice as shall not cause undue hardship in the conduct of the employer's business. The employer shall have the burden of proof to show such hardship.”

The new law, entitled “The Workplace Religious Freedom Act,” will (if signed by Mayor Bloomberg) raise the bar by amending section 8-107(3)(b) to define “undue hardship” to be an “accommodation requiring significant expense or difficulty (including a significant interference with the safe or efficient operation of the workplace or a violation of a bona fide seniority system).”  The new law also specifies various factors that should be considered in making the determining as to whether an accommodation “constitutes an undue economic hardship.”

Mayor Bloomberg has scheduled a hearing on this bill.