When Faith and Work Clash

By Dudley Rochelle

Teresa George was employed as the only greeter on her shift in the kitchen and bath department of a Home Depot store in Harahan, Louisiana. The job of the greeter is to talk to customers visiting the department and schedule appointments with the store’s designers. George’s job often required that she work Sunday hours because the store was busiest on the weekends. In August 1997, after working for the company for a year, George told her manager that her religion precluded her from working at all on Sundays.

Management pointed out that George had not made this request at the beginning of her employment and that it would be difficult to accommodate her because they had no other employees qualified to do her job.

George said nothing to her managers, but after her announcement, she took the next Sunday off. She told management that she needed to go out of town and then called in sick the following Sunday. George’s manager met with her to discuss the issue, which the manager perceived as simply being a case of finding a way for George to attend mass on Sunday, rather than having the entire day off. The manager suggested that George work before or after attending mass on Sunday. She said that she could not work at all on Sundays, because it should be a day of rest. She was fired.

George sued Home Depot for religious discrimination. The district court found that Home Depot had offered George reasonable accommodation and that her request would be an undue hardship on the company. George appealed the decision.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found in favor of Home Depot (George v. Home Depot, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, 2002). Allowing George every Sunday off would result in undue hardship to the company because she was the only greeter in the department. To accommodate her, the company would have to hire an additional employee or have another employee work extra hours to be the greeter on Sundays.

The court found that Home Depot could establish that this would be an undue hardship without quantifying the actual costs of having someone fill in. The court found that the company had a business loss due to the greeter’s absence and found that requiring another employee to assume a disproportionate workload to accommodate a coworker was an undue hardship as a matter of law.

Religious diversity and the desire for vocal religious expression are both more prevalent in today’s work force than they have been in the past. Given those factors, it is increasingly important for companies to understand what the law says about individual rights and religious expression on the job.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that citizens are free to practice their religion without interference from the state or national government, and it allows expression of religious beliefs in the public square, but the language of the amendment does not directly address religion in the workplace. Not until Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 was there statutory language that gave courts guidance on a person’s right to be free from religious discrimination and to have reasonable accommodation of one’s religious beliefs and practices at work.

Congress in crafting the law and the courts in interpreting it have taken into account the pragmatic character of the American workplace. Thus, religious accommodation is limited to those actions that do not create an undue hardship on the employer or other employees.

The basic premise from which managers should operate is this: Employees are entitled to a “workplace free of religious harassment,” according to the anti-discrimination laws. By the same token, as the case highlighted illustrates, there are limits to what a company is expected to do to accommodate employees when their religious practices would interfere with business operations or the requirements of the job.

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