A recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit is providing a reminder to federal employees that protections for religious beliefs do not automatically translate into a right to skip work.
Drawing a distinct line between reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs and the undue hardships accommodations pose on federal employers, the 8th Circuit ruled in Harrell v. Donahue that the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) was justified in firing a Missouri letter carrier who stopped showing up for his Saturday delivery shifts. The carrier claimed such work conflicted with his beliefs as a Seventh Day Adventist.
Two years after joining the Warrensburg Post Office in Missouri as a full-time letter carrier, Hosea Harrell Jr. in 2006 made a request to a supervisor for a religious accommodation to have every Saturday off. According to the post office’s seniority system, its six junior full-time carriers were required to work Saturdays with exception to every sixth Saturday under their rotation.
The post office responded to this request by proposing various accommodations, such as allowing Harrell to take off part of his Saturday shifts or transferring to a different office or position. However, Harrell maintained that Saturdays off were the only reasonable accommodation he would accept. Starting in October 2007, he stopped showing up for work on Saturdays without securing a leave of absence, and he was terminated in March 2008.
Harrell filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complain later that month, but it was denied. He subsequently sued USPS Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahue, claiming the USPS violated his rights under Title VII by discriminating against him and failing to accommodate his religious beliefs. He also claimed the USPS violated his rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 by infringing on his ability to practice his religion. The district court issued summary judgments in favor of the USPS, and they were upheld by the 8th Circuit.
What federal employees need to know
- Federal employees are exclusively protected from religious discrimination under Title VII.
- Federal employers do not have to make religious accommodations that would impose an undue hardship.
- An undue hardship could be established by an accommodation that causes an employer to violate the terms of a collective bargaining agreement that prohibits changes to fixed or rotating work schedules (e.g. every sixth Saturday off).
- An undue hardship could also be established by an accommodation that causes more than a minor impact on co-workers (e.g. depriving co-workers of the seniority-based rights that grant junior carriers their sixth Saturday off).
- Federal employers do not have to stray from a seniority system to make religious accommodations, even if such system is not created by a collective bargaining agreement.
- The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which prohibited the government from passing laws that substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion, did not broaden the federal employment discrimination remedies provided under Title VII.
The ability to practice religion freely is one of the most important rights provided by the U.S. Constitution. Federal employees who have experienced religious discrimination or who have questions about the reasonable accommodations employers are required to make should contact a federal employment law attorney.