In the News: Prayer Breaks and Religious Accommodations

Last week, local manufacturer Ariens Co. made headlines when it fired seven Muslim employees for taking unscheduled prayer breaks in violation of company policy. Reports indicate that Ariens recently changed its policy on this issue, asking employees to pray during scheduled breaks. Reports also claim employees were previously allowed to leave their work stations at different times to pray.

An advocate for the employees has already suggested they may file a charge over the terminations. Some readers might ask, what is the legal analysis here? We won’t take a position on the likelihood of any outcome, but we can provide some information on what the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a federal court will examine.

Employers are prohibited from discriminating against an individual on the basis of their religion under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. An employer is also required to accommodate an employee’s religious practices unless an accommodation would cause “undue hardship” to the employer. An employer bears the burden of demonstrating an accommodation causes an undue hardship if an employee is able to meet the basic elements, or what is known in the legal world as a prima facie case, of religious discrimination. The central issue of any legal dispute between Ariens and its recently discharged Muslim employees is likely to be whether allowing the employees to pray outside of scheduled break times would cause Ariens an undue hardship. Reports on this issue have described that Ariens claims such accommodation would cause it millions of dollars.

Readers may recognize the terms “reasonable accommodation” and “undue hardship” from issues involving the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, it is important to note that an employer bears a lower burden of demonstrating undue hardship in the Title VII religious discrimination context than it does under the ADA. The Seventh Circuit, the federal appellate court controlling in Wisconsin, has recently described this burden as more than a showing of “minor inconveniences.” However, the United States Supreme Court long ago held that an employer will meet this burden by showing the accommodation requires “more than a de minimis cost” to the employer.

Federal regulations offer some additional help to guide whether a religious accommodation is a reasonable one that does not cause undue hardship. Those regulations include the example that “flexible work breaks” may be a means of providing reasonable accommodation for an employee’s religious practices. However, the regulations go on to explain that the “de minimis cost” analysis will include examining “the identifiable cost in relation to the size and operating cost of the employer, and the number of individuals who will in fact need a particular accommodation.” In other words, the same religious accommodation may be an undue hardship for the mom and pop shoe store but not for the international conglomerate. Of course, federal regulations are not binding authority for any court but typically are persuasive for any decision.

At least one federal district court took on the issue of Muslim prayer breaks and reasonable religious accommodations in Haliye v. Celestica Corporation out of the District of Minnesota. There the court found issues of fact over whether the requested break accommodation caused the employer an undue hardship so that a summary judgment decision was not appropriate. The court credited the employees’ argument that other employees were permitted to take unscheduled breaks for other reasons, such as using the restroom. The court’s decision did not mean the plaintiffs “won” but instead that it wasn’t appropriate for the court to decide the issue as a matter of law. Additionally, it should be noted that these decisions are very fact intensive and can vary widely from one situation to the next.

The Ariens matter will certainly be one to follow as it has already made local headlines. Assuming the employees decide to pursue a charge of discrimination, Ariens may have a successful defense if it can demonstrate there is a significant cost to allow employees to take unscheduled prayer breaks. For updates and additional information, stay tuned to the Walcheske & Luzi, LLC blog.

A quick reminder that this blog is only intended to provide information on the subject matters discussed and does not constitute legal advice. Any insight, analysis, and information may change as facts are established and developed.