Title VII is the federal body of law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, race, color, national origin or religion. Title VII also bars retaliation against someone for having alleged such discrimination. This is the body of law on which employees typically rely when, for example, they ask to be excused from work to observe their Sabbath (Sunday for most Christians; Friday night and Saturday for observant Jews). So what should happen when a Muslim employee asks to take an extended leave of absence to participate in a Hajj – a pilgrimage to Mecca?
First, let’s examine the significance of the Hajj to the Muslim religion. Like the five daily prayers, the Hajj is one of the requirements of Islam. All adults who are of sound body and mind and who have the financial means to do so must perform the Hajj at least once in their lifetime. The Hajj must occur during a specific time of year, and participants are required to participate in a multi-day ritual that is described in Islamic teachings. Islamic teachings do not specify when during the person’s lifetime the Hajj must be performed, other than to require that it occur at least once during adulthood. In other words, although the Hajj does not occur weekly as Christian and Jewish worship services do, the event itself lasts many days – during which time the observant participant must be completely out of touch with his or her work duties so as to focus fully on the religious observances.
Title VII requires religious accommodation, but only up to a point. If it is an undue hardship for an employer to accommodate a religious observance, the employer may be excused from doing so without violating Title VII. The question then is whether Title VII requires an employer to accommodate this type of lengthy absence for a religious observance, taking into consideration the fact that the Hajj is not required to be performed more than once in a lifetime or during any particular year of one’s life.
In a signal that it does not regard this sort of accommodation as an undue hardship, the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division recently filed suit (at the EEOC’s request) against a school district in Illinois after the school district declined to allow a teacher to take an unpaid leave of absence to observe the Hajj. The parties have resolved the matter with a consent order that is awaiting court approval. The order provides for payment of $75,000 in back pay and other damages to the teacher, and it also requires the school district to educate all of its decisionmakers regarding the interactive process that must be followed when a religious accommodation is requested.
This lawsuit and its outcome should serve as a signal that the U.S. Department of Justice, and the EEOC, intend to closely monitor citizens’ efforts to obtain religious accommodations – even where the requested accommodation involves much more than one day off every week.
The analysis set forth in this article is provided for general understanding only and should not be considered legal advice. Counsel should always be consulted for advice regarding a specific situation.