Can I Be Forced to Work on Religious Holidays or the Sabbath?

You are entitled to an accommodation for your religious beliefs, if your employer can provide one without undue hardship.

By , J.D.

No matter what religion you practice, your employer is required to make accommodations for your sincerely held religious beliefs unless doing so would cause it undue hardship. Such accommodations include time off for religious holidays and Sabbath days.

Here's what you need to know about religious discrimination and accommodation in the workplace.

Religious Discrimination and Accommodation in the Workplace

Under Title VII, the landmark federal civil rights law, employers may not discriminate based on an employee's sincerely held religious beliefs. Title VII prohibits employers from making job decisions, such as who to hire, promote, or fire, based on your religion.

But the law goes even further: It also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees whose religious beliefs, observances, or practices conflict with workplace rules, policies, or requirements.

Employers must make such accommodations unless doing so would create undue hardship, defined as a more than minimal cost or burden on the employer.

Time Off for Religious Observances

If you want time off to celebrate a religious holiday or the Sabbath day, the question is whether a schedule change would pose an undue hardship on the employer.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing workplace discrimination laws, has stated that involuntary shift changesfor example, requiring one of your coworkers to pick up your Saturday shift, when that person doesn't want to do sois an undue hardship. Similarly, if the only way to cover your shift is for your employer to pay someone overtime or a shift premium, that would likely create an undue hardship.

However, voluntary shift changes are a different story. Your employer might allow you to find a coworker who wants to swap days off, for example.

Religious Beliefs Must Be Sincerely Held

To be entitled to an accommodation under Title VII (or your state's equivalent law), your religious beliefs must be sincerely held. In other words, you're not allowed to fake it.

If an employer has reason to believe that your request for time off or other religious accommodation isn't based on genuine religious belief, it can deny your request. However, your employer typically requires more than just a hunch; it needs proof.

For example, if you previously asked for Saturdays off so you could take a cooking class, then later claimed it was your Sabbath after your request was denied, your employer might have good reason to be suspicious.

At the same time, the EEOC recognizes that religious beliefs can change over time. That means if you've previously worked on religious holidays but don't want to do so any longer, the inconsistency between your past behavior and your current request should not necessarily count against you.

Requesting Time Off for Religious Observances

Religious holidays and Sabbath days don't just appear on the calendar overnight. That means you should be able to give your employer several months of notice when you require time off. Granting last-minute requests for time off is burdensome for employers. But with enough notice, your employer should be able to provide you with unpaid time off so you can celebrate religious observances.

When to Contact an Employment Lawyer

If your request for religious accommodation is denied, you might wish to contact an employment attorney to remind your employer of its legal obligations. If that's not successful, an attorney can help you file a discrimination charge with the EEOC or a lawsuit against your employer.

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