Two Somali-American Muslim truck drivers were fired recently after they refused to transport alcohol. They took their case to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and won.
The U.S. is home to citizens of many faiths. The U.S. Constitution forbids laws establishing an official religion or prohibiting the practice of any faith. And the same 1964 Civil Rights Act championed by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders requires that employers reasonably accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs and practices.
Reasonably doesn’t mean in every case, but it does mean that if accommodating an employee’s faith would only minimally burden an employer — for example, allowing two drivers to swap assignments with colleagues who do not object to delivering alcohol — it must do so.
In October, a federal jury awarded $240,000 in damages to the two truck drivers.
Employers can be required to accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs in a number of ways, including:
- Voluntary shift substitutions or swaps.
- Job reassignments.
- Exceptions to dress or grooming rules.
On dress standards, the U.S. Supreme Court recently allowed a woman who was denied a job at a clothing retailer because she wore a hijab to file a discrimination lawsuit. And a judge recently told the U.S. Army it must allow a Sikh-American trainee to retain his beard and wear his turban.
After the ruling in favor of the truck drivers, an EEOC attorney said, “We are pleased that the jury recognized that these — and all — employees are entitled to observe and practice their faith, no matter what that might be.”
Employers “don’t get to pick and choose which religions and which religious practices they will accommodate,” another EEOC lawyer added. “If an employer can reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practice without an undue hardship, then it must do so. That is a principle which has been memorialized in federal employment law for almost 50 years.”