As the Equal Opportunity (EO) professional for an agency or organization charged with administering federally-funded programs and activities where “religion” is a prohibited basis of discrimination, you should have written policies and procedures for handling requests for religious accommodation. In this paper, we explore some basic concepts related to religious accommodation using the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 (WIOA) as the context for guidance offered.

Some examples of WIOA-funded programs and activities are found at American Job Centers and their affiliates, partners, and service providers offering unemployment insurance benefits, employment referral services, and training. In addition, most Job Corps Centers offer WIOA-funded educational programs and activities designed to get young folks educated, skilled, and employed.

For WIOA-funded programs and activities, one prohibited basis of discrimination is “religion.” And, with this prohibition comes an obligation to provide reasonable religious-based accommodation when requested, if no “undue hardship” is present.

√ “Religious belief or practice” defined

Initially, it is helpful to have a common understanding of how the phrase, “religious belief or practice,” is defined. Because WIOA and its implementing regulations do not define “religious belief or practice,” we may look at how this phrase is defined under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which prohibits religion-based discrimination in the workplace. Here, we find that a “religious belief or practice” may represent mainstream religious views, or the belief or practice may be less common, less understood, and less well-known. And, the concept of “religious belief or practice” includes persons who ascribe to no religious belief or practice at all.

Some examples of “religious belief or practice” under Title VII include, but are not limited to, the following:

● Agnostic
● Atheist
● Buddhist
● Christian
● Hindu
● Jewish
● Kemetic
● Muslim
● Native American spiritual beliefs
● Sikh
● Wicca
● and countless others.

A common thread defining any “religious belief or practice” is that it reflects a person’s views of life, purpose, and death. On the other hand, social, political, and economic philosophies as well as personal preferences do not constitute “religious beliefs or practices” protected by federal civil rights laws.

√ The “religious belief or practice” must be bona fide

Religious-based accommodation is premised on the fact that the asserted “religious belief or practice” is bona fide. Said differently, it is “sincerely held” by the requester. Generally, this requirement is met without difficulty. However, if the requester behaves in a manner that is markedly inconsistent with the professed “religious belief or practice,” then you may determine that the belief or practice is not bona fide or “sincerely held” by the requester. This, in turn, means that there is no obligation to provide accommodation.

√ Essential eligibility requirements must be met

Before entertaining a request for religious accommodation, the requester must meet the “essential eligibility requirements” for the WIOA-funded aid, benefit, service, or training at issue. If a person does not meet the “essential eligibility requirements” for the program or activity, then there is no obligation to provide accommodation.

√ Common religious-based accommodation requests

In federally-funded programs and activities, some common religious-based accommodation requests include:

● Changes in scheduling of programs and activities;
● Modification of testing and selection procedures;
● Modification of dress and/or grooming requirements; and
● Permitting forms of religious expression.

In the workplace, religious-based accommodation requests may take similar forms of:

● Changes in scheduling of work shifts;
● Modification of testing and selection procedures;
● Modification of dress and/or grooming requirements; and
● Permitting forms of religious expression.

Generally, a religious-based accommodation request is made to address conflicts between a federally-funded program or activity and a person’s religious belief or practice. For example, your American Job Center receives a request that orientations for the Center’s programs and activities be scheduled any day of the week except Friday because Friday is considered a “holy day” by the requester. This is an example of a religious-based accommodation request.

In the workplace, the case of Sanchez-Rodriguez v. AT&T Mobility Puerto Rico, Inc., issued by the First Circuit Court of Appeals on March 8, 2012, is illustrative of the types of religious-based accommodation requests an employer may receive. Here, an employee, who was a Seventh Day Adventist, requested Saturdays off from work. AT&T stated that providing the employee with every Saturday off as a matter of course would constitute an undue hardship; rather, as a “reasonable accommodation,” AT&T offered that the employee could: (1) take another position in the company that did not require working on Saturdays; or (2) arrange voluntary “swapping” of shifts with co-workers on his own. The court held that these offered accommodations (even though they differed from the accommodation requested by the employee) were sufficient such that the employee did not demonstrate religious-based discrimination.

√ Communication is a must

If a person seeks accommodation based on his/her religious belief or practice, then the accommodation request must be made known to the recipient delivering the federally-funded programs and activities (such as the American Job Center or Job Corps Center). Magic words are not required, but the requester must convey enough information for the recipient to understand that accommodation is sought pursuant to the requester’s religious beliefs or practices. A recipient cannot be held liable for failure to provide accommodation if it was unaware of the need in the first place.

Information-sharing between the requester and the EO Officer is critical as determinations of accommodation are made on a case-by-case basis after consideration of the particular facts.

√ Avoid discriminatory consideration of requests

If a person meets the essential eligibility requirements for a federally-funded program or activity, and the person requests accommodation based on a bona fide religious belief or practice, then the EO Officer is obliged to avoid consideration of discriminatory criteria when rendering a determination on the accommodation request. Examples of discriminatory criteria are as follows:

● “The person looks like a terrorist”;
● “The person’s beliefs are illogical, inconceivable, or incorrect”;
● “I disagree with the person’s beliefs”;
● “The person’s name is associated with a particular religion”;
● “The person’s name is associated with terrorism”;
● “The person’s religious belief or practice is offensive”;
● “The person’s religious belief or practice is immoral”;
● “I am uncomfortable with the religious belief or practice”; or
● “The person’s religious belief or practice is in the minority.”

It bears repeating that it is discriminatory to employ any of the foregoing criteria, or similar criteria, when considering an accommodation request. Sincerely held religious beliefs and practices are intensely personal, and they must be accepted “as is” for purposes of addressing a religious accommodation request under federal civil rights laws.

√ “Undue hardship”

● Defined

A recipient offering federally-funded programs and activities is obliged to provide reasonable religious-based accommodation unless it can demonstrate “undue hardship”. For example, the regulations implementing WIOA at 29 C.F.R. § 37.4 define “undue hardship” as follows:

For purposes of religious accommodation only, “undue hardship” means any additional, unusual costs, other than de minimis costs, that a particular accommodation would impose upon a recipient. See Trans World Airlines, Inc.v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 81, 84 (1977).

It is the recipient’s burden to demonstrate “undue hardship.”

● Not established, examples of

Asserting speculative, or showing only de minimus costs associated with providing accommodation does not give rise to a finding of “undue hardship.” And, “undue hardship” is not established by a recipient’s mere assertion that providing accommodation for one person will lead to an incoming tide of other requests.

● Factors to consider

As we noted earlier, “undue hardship” must be determined on a case-by-case basis after consideration of all the facts. The following factors may be relevant and are properly considered:

▪ Costs associated with providing the accommodation are identifiable and more than de minimus” in relation to the recipient’s size and operating costs;
▪ Providing the requested accommodation would diminish the efficiency of recipient’s federally-funded programs and activities;
▪ Safety would be impaired by allowing the accommodation;
▪ The requested accommodation would conflict with another civil rights law; or
▪ In the employment context, the requested accommodation violates of the terms of a collective bargaining agreement, or violates seniority rights of other employees.

In assessing whether a requested accommodation would conflict with another law, it is important to keep in mind that federally-funded programs and activities operate using taxpayer dollars, and there are taxpayers of all races, colors, national origins, genders, disabilities, and religions. These funds, in turn, are used to provide aid, benefits, services, and training to any member of the public meeting certain essential eligibility requirements. Attached to this federal funding are obligations imposed on the WIOA recipient to ensure nondiscrimination on a variety of bases, including religion, sex, race, national origin, color, disability, and age among others.

So, let’s assume that you are the EO Officer for a Job Corps Center, which provides educational programs and activities. Your Center is located in an area that is largely comprised of persons of a particular religion requiring separation of men and women in educational programs and activities. You receive a request for accommodation by persons of this religious belief asking that you provide separate classes for men and women at your Center. What should you do?

We start with the law. The regulations implementing WIOA bar discrimination on certain “prohibited grounds” as follows:

(a) For the purposes of this section, “prohibited ground” means race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, political affiliation or belief, and for beneficiaries only, citizenship or participation in any WIOA Title I—financially assisted program or activity.

29 C.F.R. § 37.6(a).

And, the regulations further provide that offering segregated or separate programs and activities is a form of discrimination:

(b) A recipient must not, directly or through contractual, licensing, or other arrangements, on a prohibited ground:

. . .

(3) Subject an individual to segregation or separate treatment in any matter related to his or her receipt of any aid, benefits, services, or training under a WIOA Title I—funded program or activity; . . ..

29 C.F.R. § 37.6(b)(3).

In our example, the requested accommodation (segregation of men and women in educational programs) would lead your Center to engage in gender-based discrimination in violation of federal law. As previously noted, the law prohibits “segregation or separate treatment” on any “prohibited ground”, which includes sex.

Keep in mind that the same would hold true if you received a religious-based accommodation request seeking segregation based on race, color, national origin, age, or the like. It is not reasonable to discriminate against participants on one of these prohibited bases in order to accommodate a religious belief or practice.

√ Religious accommodation in the workplace; some considerations

If you do not have dress and grooming policies for your workplace, then it would constitute a form of religious-based discrimination to prohibit forms of religious garb or grooming on an ad hoc basis. And, if you do have dress and grooming policies in your workplace then, according to the EEOC, religious accommodation requires making exceptions to those codes to accommodate bona fide religious beliefs and practices. With or without grooming codes in place, it is incumbent on an employer to allow dress and grooming practices of sincerely-held religious beliefs, unless it would create “undue hardship.”

The standard for “undue hardship” is different for religious-based accommodation requests than for disability-based accommodation requests. Notably, in the case of a disability-related accommodation request, the employer must provide accommodation unless the accommodation will create significant difficulty or expense to the employer’s operations. On the other hand, undue hardship in the context of religious accommodation is a hardship that will create more than a de minimus cost on the employer’s operation.

Even in light of the lesser “undue hardship” standard, the EEOC has ramped-up its pursuit of religious-based discrimination in the workplace, and the EEOC rarely accepts arguments that a dress code constitutes “business necessity” for an employer (i.e. an employer’s argument that it needs to convey an uniform image of all of its workers). Most notably, lawsuits and charges have been filed where workers have been penalized for particular religious grooming, or donning religious garb. Some examples include Muslim head scarves, Sikh turbans, yarmulkes, and the presence of religious tattoos. In 2015, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the EEOC’s position in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., and concluded the employer engaged in religious-based discrimination against a Muslim employee. The employer raised unsubstantiated assertions that it need not accommodate the employee’s request to wear a headscarf on grounds that the employee’s use of a headscarf constituted an “undue hardship.” The employer maintained that use of the headscarf departed from the company’s “look policy” and “corporate brand.” As noted by the EEOC, the employee had the headscarf on when interviewed, and had worked with the headscarf on for four months before being terminated. The employer failed to present evidence to show its sales had dropped in that four month period of time.

However, for both disability and religious-based accommodation requests, “undue hardship” may be demonstrated if safety concerns are raised. As an example, an employer may ban a Muslim employee’s use of a head scarf in a job where the scarf could get caught in machinery.

Sometimes, the lack of understanding regarding a particular religion’s practices is at the root of discrimination. For example, in EEOC v. Fries Rest. Mgt., LLC, Case No. 12-03169 (Tex. Aug. 22, 2012), religious-based discrimination occurred where the manager of a Burger King restaurant fired a Christian Pentecostal female cashier on grounds that she would not wear the standard uniform (including pants). Instead, because of her religious beliefs, she insisted on wearing a skirt.

√ Conclusion

In the end, religious-based accommodation requests are fact-intensive, and must be handled on a case-by-case basis. To the extent that “undue hardship” is not present, you are obliged under federal law to provide reasonable religious-based accommodation, if requested, to persons who meet the essential eligibility requirements for the program or activity. And, you must accept the requester’s bona fide religious belief or practice “as is.” For complicated accommodation requests, including any requests that may conflict with other federal civil rights laws, you should consult with the EO leadership of your state or territory for guidance, or consult the civil rights office of your federal funding agency.

About Seena Foster

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Principal of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting, LLP in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of civil rights compliance and discrimination complaint investigations related to the delivery of federally-assisted workforce development programs and activities. Her customers include state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, private counsel, and non-profit organizations. You may contact her at, or visit her web site at for additional information regarding the services and resources she offers.

By way of background, in 2003, Ms. Foster served as a Senior Policy Analyst to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center (CRC). In that capacity, she led a team of equal opportunity specialists to conduct disability-based technical assistance reviews of One-Stop centers, and she assisted the CRC’s leadership in preparing for limited English proficiency-based compliance reviews. Ms. Foster also analyzed and weighed witness statements and documents to prepare numerous final determinations for signature by the CRC Director, which resolved discrimination complaints under a variety of federal civil rights laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act. In 2006, Ms. Foster received the Secretary of Labor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Award in recognition of “exceptional efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities have full access to employment and related services and benefits at the Nation’s One-Stop Career Centers.” And, at the request of the CRC, Ms. Foster served as a popular workshop speaker at national equal opportunity forums co-sponsored by the CRC and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Her presentations covered topics such as the WIA Section 188 disability checklist, conducting discrimination complaint investigations and writing final determinations, and conducting investigations of allegations involving harassment and hostile environment.

With a passion for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities, Ms. Foster remains highly active in the field through her series of on-demand webcasts for equal opportunity professionals as well as through her mediation services, training, and assistance developing policies and procedures designed to ensure compliance with applicable federal civil rights laws. Her training in the areas of compliance and complaint investigations has been described as “dynamic,” “hitting the nail on the head,” “well-organized,” and “informative.” And, her award-winning book on conducting discrimination complaint investigations is viewed as “eye-opening” and “the best on the market.” Ms. Foster has a “Federal Workplace Mediation” certification through the Northern Virginia Mediation Service.

She is a member of the Human Rights Institute and Discrimination Law and Human Rights Law Committees of the International Bar Association. Ms. Foster received her undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, and she has a Juris Doctorate from The George Washington University Law School.