Dec 3, 2012
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Have Faith in Your Religious Accommodations

Growing up with a minister for a father, you get to hear a lot of great parables. Here’s one of my favorites:1

A night janitor of great faith is the only employee in a four-story building one weekend, and looks outside to see a Noah-caliber flood headed right for the door. He quickly runs up to the second floor, confidently praying: “Lord, deliver me from this flood!” Nothing happens. He looks out of the second story window to see the water is nearly at his feet, and an office desk floating like driftwood. The janitor thinks for a second about jumping onto the desk, but immediately says “No! I have faith that God will save me from this flood!”

The janitor climbs to the third floor and again prays “God, deliver me from this flood!” When he opens his eyes, he’s still in the building, the water rising up the stairs behind him. On his way up to the top floor, he sees a refrigerator floating on its side, with two ping pong paddles inside it. He fights the temptation to jump in the refrigerator and races to the roof.

There, the janitor prays again “Oh Lord, deliver me from this flood!” but again he remains on the building, the waters rising up to his ankles. Suddenly, a helicopter appears overhead, and drops a ladder. The pilot says “jump on! I’ll fly us out!” But the janitor throws the ladder back up to the pilot, yelling “My faith in God is strong! He will deliver me from this flood!”

The helicopter leaves, and the waters swallow up the faithful janitor. When he arrives at the gates of heaven, he sees God and says “Lord, I prayed and prayed. Why didn’t you save me from the flood?”

God shakes his head and says “Buddy, I sent you a life saver, a boat and a helicopter. What more did you want?”

The same question could be asked of a records employee at the Chicago Police Department, whose religious discrimination case did not go the way she’d hoped.

The Plaintiff in Porter v. City of Chicago  sued the CPD for religious discrimination, claiming the City violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by failing to reasonably accommodate her need for religious observance. Translated: she wanted Sundays off to attend church.

After returning from 9 months of medical leave, Porter was placed on a shift that gave her Fridays and Saturdays off. There were more civilians on duty on the Sunday/Monday shifts, and CPD wanted to keep the workflow balanced. So Porter formally requested a change to get Sundays off, and her supervisor said that, if a Sunday/Monday position opened up, he would move her into it. One of her supervisors asked the rest of the staff if anyone would volunteer to switch, but no one came forward.

Porter talked to another supervisory employee, who suggested that she could go to a Sunday-evening shift, thereby allowing her to attend church before coming to work. She never followed up.

Instead, Porter did the only logical thing she could: she called off a total of 17 Sundays between mid-July and mid-November. Eventually, Porter brought a religious discrimination claim because she was reprimanded for her absences.

The district court granted the CPD’s motion for summary judgment on the case, and the court of appeals agreed. They based this holding specifically on the fact that a CPD supervisor had offered to move Porter to a later start time, but that it was clear from the record that starting later on Sundays wasn’t what Porter had in mind. The Court made short work of that issue:

Nevertheless, “it is well settled that ‘Title VII … requires only reasonable accommodation, not satisfaction of an employee’s every desire.’”

* * *

Had changing [her start time] affected Porter’s pay or other benefits, a much more rigorous inquiry would be required. That is not the case before us, however. Porter simply did not want to work the later watch, but that does not make the proposed accommodation unreasonable.”

Exactly. Porter went on to argue that she wasn’t “invited” to apply or informed how specfiically to request a change in hours. The court said Porter expected a level of “hand holding” that the law just doesn’t require.

All Title VII requires is that employers have a dialogue with the employee to figure out a reasonable solution to a religious conflict. That’s it.

One other note – the Court bolstered its opinion with the fact that Porter had previously received accommodations from the city – her schedule was adjusted during a 10-week ministry class, and she was previously on a schedule which allowed her Sundays & Mondays off, specifically so that she could attend Sunday morning worship.

This extra info shows how doing a little bit of good – successfully accommodating an employee, for example – can lead to extra benefits down the road. Had CPD been too busy or frustrated to work out earlier accommodations, it wouldn’t have the ammo to defend against Porter’s claim now.

Employers should approach accommodations by trying to answer the question: “Can we provide for the employee’s religious needs without serious hardship?” If there’s a way, offer it. If the employee refuses your offer because it’s not the accommodation they want, then so be it. You’re job’s done.

Religious accommodations means offering a path (or two) for the employee to choose. But if they reject a reasonable solution, you’re obligation is still fulfilled.

You don’t have to work a miracle.

 

Footnotes:
  1. I am not sure this came from my dad; when you spend 15 hours a week in a church, some of this stuff just comes in through the ether. []

2 Comments

  • I have heard a version of this parable before and repeated it many times. I enjoyed your use of it here in parallel to this case.

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