Employment & Religion: The Basics

A 60-year-old woman made news headlines in January when she was awarded $21 million dollars by a Florida jury because her employer refused to accommodate her Catholic missionary work. The employee, Marie Jean Pierre, needed Sundays off in accordance with her religious beliefs, and for years, the company accommodated her. When the company began scheduling Pierre for Sundays, she adapted by voluntarily switching shifts with other workers. However, Pierre’s boss finally ordered her to work a Sunday, and when Pierre refused, he fired her.

Pierre’s case (not to mention the $21 million verdict) highlights why it’s so important for businesses and workers to understand federal and state civil rights laws. The moral of the story is make sure you know your rights and responsibilities before taking rash action that could cost your company a lot of money.

Now is a good time to review the basics of religious discrimination:

Under federal civil rights laws, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees on the basis of their religious beliefs. Businesses are also on the hook to provide reasonable religious accommodations to their employees.

If an employee hopes to sue under federal law for religious discrimination, then he or she must first file an administrative charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). State laws typically mirror the federal ones. But in Michigan, an employee may sue on state law claims regardless of whether he or she pursued an administrative charge through the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR).

An employee in need of a religious accommodation must make the work-religion conflict known to the employer, at which point the employer has to make a decision as to whether a reasonable accommodation can be made.

Understand that every situation is different, and an employer may not always be obligated to make accommodations. Whether you’re an employer or employee, it pays to understand these basics. Feel free to reach out with any questions you have regarding religious accommodations in your workplace.

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