If there is a secret to avoiding or, if necessary, winning lawsuits involving employee requests for religious accommodations, it is this: be reasonable. Two recent federal appeals court rulings highlight this seemingly obvious but sometimes elusive point.

In Telfair v. Federal Express Corporation, Garrett and Traivs Telfair, FedEx employees who also happened to be practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses, were told that their work schedule would be changed from Monday through Friday to Tuesday through Saturday. That schedule conflicted with the Telfairs’ religious observances. The Telfairs were given the option of accepting the new schedule or taking 90 days’ leave in which to apply for alternative positions within FedEx. They offered to work Tuesday through Friday. FedEx denied that request, but offered them “Handler” positions with a Monday to Friday schedule albeit at a lower pay rate. The Telfairs declined that offer, and also did not apply for any of the 53 other positions with FedEx that were open in their region. After their employment was terminated, the Telfairs sued, alleging that FedEx violated Title VII by failing to accommodate their request not to work on Saturdays. Rejecting their claim, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that FedEx satisfied its obligation to accommodate the Telfairs’ religious observances by allowing them to apply for other positions and offering them a position with a Monday through Friday schedule.

In Fields v. City of Tulsa, the court considered a police officer’s right to refuse an order based upon religious grounds. Paul Fields, a captain in the Tulsa Police Department, was ordered by his superiors to either attend or arrange for other officers to attend an open house event hosted by a local mosque to thank the police department for protecting the mosque after a threat was made against it. Although the officers were invited to observe religious services and to informational programs about Islam, those events were optional and the order was crafted so as to ensure that no officers were required to be at the mosque during religious services. Nevertheless, Fields objected to the order and refused to comply despite direct instructions from his superiors. He was subsequently disciplined. Rejecting Fields’ claims under the First Amendment, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the Police Department had participated in approximately 3,500 community events between 2004 and 2011, including more than 350 held at or sponsored by religious venues or institutions. The Court observed that the event was squarely in line with the Department’s community policing initiative, and that failure to attend the event “would have treated the Islamic community differently from other religious organizations.” Further, the department crafted its order to avoid any conflict with Fields’ or other officers’ religious convictions by ensuring that officers would not be required to participate in religious services or similar events.

While these are obviously very different cases, they have a core similarity in that both involve employers that made reasonable efforts to accommodate their employees’ religious convictions, and employees who rejected those efforts without any apparent attempt to find a reasonable resolution.

Lessons for Employers:

  • Religion is not a free pass for employees to disregard orders or refuse assignments.
  • As with disability accommodation cases, courts often resolve religious accommodation cases by examining who was responsible for the breakdown in communication about possible accommodations.
  • Consequently, when an employee requests a religious accommodation, the employer should engage with the employee to try to find a reasonable solution that eliminates the conflict with the employee’s religion.
  • If an employee has rejected various proposed accommodations that would resolve the religious conflict, an employer can usually be reasonably confident that its position will be upheld if challenged.
  • However, employers should remain cautious of derivative claims, such as allegations of discrimination or retaliation following an accommodation request.