The Fifth Circuit recently decided the case of Davis v. Ford Bend Cty, where an employee was unavailable to work over a particular weekend because she had a special church event. She told her supervisor of the conflict, offered to come in after the religious event, and arranged for a replacement. When she did not show up for her shift, the employer fired her. When she sued for religious-based discrimination, the lower court dismissed the case, concluding that the absence was based on the employee’s “personal commitment” as opposed to “religious conviction.” It stated “being an avid and active member of church does not elevate every activity associated with that church into a legally protectable religious practice.”
The employee appealed and the Fifth Circuit reversed. It concluded the trial court probed too deeply into the plaintiff’s motivation. The issue, according to the court, was whether the plaintiff sincerely felt she was religiously compelled to participate in the service in question. This is a light burden, per the court, which the plaintiff easily met. Her testimony that she was a devout church member and needed to be at this particular service was enough.
What’s the takeaway for employers? Tread lightly if you plan on denying a request for a religious accommodation. The employee has a minimal burden in demonstrating that she has a religious conflict with work, and courts tend to defer to employees in this arena.