When does your religion legally excuse you from doing part of your job?

Can your religion legally excuse you from doing part of your job? This is one of the questions in the Kentucky County Clerk marriage certificate case. But it also arises in lots of other cases — for instance, the Muslim flight attendant who doesn’t want to serve alcohol and who filed a complaint on Tuesday with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the airline’s denial of an exemption.

The question has also arisen before with regard to:

  1. Nurses who had religious objections to being involved in abortions (even just to washing instruments that would be used in abortions);
  2. Pacifist postal workers who had religious objections to processing draft registration forms;
  3. A Jehovah’s Witness employee who had religious objections to raising a flag, which was a task assigned to him;
  4. An IRS employee who had religious objections to working on tax exemption applications for organizations that promote “abortion, … homosexuality, worship of the devil, euthanasia, atheism, legalization of marijuana, immoral sexual experiments, sterilization or vasectomies, artificial contraception, and witchcraft”;
  5. a philosophically vegetarian bus driver who refused to hand out hamburger coupons as part of an agency’s promotion aimed at boosting ridership;
  6. and more.

And of course it arises routinely when people are fine with their job tasks, but have a religious objection to doing them on particular days (e.g., Saturdays and Fridays after sundown).

Under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, both public and private employers have a duty to exempt religious employees from generally applicable work rules, so long as this won’t create an “undue hardship,” meaning more than a modest cost, on the employer. If the employees can be accommodated in a way that would let the job still get done without much burden on the employer, coworkers, and customers — for instance by switching the employee’s assignments with another employee or by otherwise slightly changing the job duties — then the employer must accommodate them. (The Muslim flight attendant I mentioned above, for instance, claims that she has always been able to work out arrangements under which the other flight attendant serves the alcohol instead of her.)

Thus, for instance, in all the cases I mentioned in the numbered list above, the religious objectors got an accommodation, whether in court or as a result of the employer’s settling a lawsuit brought by the EEOC. Likewise, the EEOC is currently litigating a case in which it claims that a trucking company must accommodate a Muslim employee’s religious objections to transporting alcohol, and the court has indeed concluded that the employer had a duty to accommodate such objections. But if the accommodation would have been quite difficult or expensive (beyond the inevitable cost that always come when rearranging tasks), then the employer wouldn’t have had to provide it.

Now I’m not saying this to praise the law, or to claim that it’s demanded by vital principles of religious principles. One can certainly argue against this approach, especially as applied to private employers, but also as applied to the government.

The government is barred by the Free Exercise Clause from discriminating based on religion, but the government has no constitutional duty to give religious objectors special exemptions from generally applicable rules. Maybe it (and private employers) shouldn’t have such a statutory duty, either. But my point so far has been simply to describe the American legal rule as it actually is, and as it has been for over 40 years (since the religious accommodation provisions were enacted in the 1972 amendments to Title VII).

Once we see this rule, we can also make some practical observations about it:

1. The rule requires judgments of degree. Some accommodations are relatively cheap (again, always realizing that any accommodation involves some burden on employers), while other are more expensive. The courts have to end up drawing some fuzzy line between them. Maybe that’s a bad idea, but that’s what Congress set up with the “reasonable accommodation” requirement. So if you want to argue that one religious objector shouldn’t get the relatively easy accommodation she wants, you can’t do that by analogy to another claim where the accommodation would be very expensive.

2. The rule turns on the specific facts present in a particular workplace. An accommodation can be very expensive when the objecting employee is the only one at the job site who can do a task, but relatively cheap when there are lots of other employees. It can be very expensive when all the other employees also raise the same objection, but relatively cheap when the other employees are just fine with doing the task.

Again, maybe that’s a bad rule, but it’s the rule Congress created. And if you want to argue that one religious objector shouldn’t get an accommodation that’s easy at the objector’s job site, you can’t do that by pointing out that the accommodation would be expensive at other job sites.

3. The rule accepts the risk of insincere objections. Of course, when sincere religious objectors can get an exemption, others can ask for the same exemption even just for convenience rather than from religious belief. That’s not much of a problem for many exemption requests, since most people have no personal, self-interested reasons not to transport alcohol on their trucks, or raising an American flag on a flagpole. But for some accommodations, there is a risk of insincere claims, for instance when someone just wants Saturdays off so he can do fun weekend things. The law assumes that employers will be able to judge employees’ sincerity relatively accurately, and to the extent some insincere objections are granted, this won’t be too much of a problem. Again, the law might be wrong on this, but it’s the law.

4. The rule accepts the risk of slippery slopes, and counts on courts to stop the slippage. Once some people get a religious exemption, others are likely to claim other religious exemptions; indeed, some people who before managed to find a way to live with their religious objections without raising an accommodation request might now conclude that they need to be more militant about their beliefs. Here too, the law accepts this risk, and counts on courts to cut off the more expensive accommodations.

5. The rule rejects the “you don’t like the job requirements, so quit the job” argument. Again, that argument is a perfectly sensible policy argument against having a Title VII duty of religious accommodation. It’s just an argument that religious accommodation law has, rightly or wrongly, rejected.

6. The rule focused on what specific accommodations are practical. If someone demands as an accommodation that a company completely stop shipping alcohol, that would be an undue hardship for an employer. But if it’s possible to accommodate the person by just not giving him the relatively rare alcohol-shipping orders, then that might well not be an undue hardship.


OK, now we’ve seen the big picture, which is that sincere religious objections can indeed legally excuse you from doing part of your job — if the employer can exempt you without undue cost to itself, its other employees, or its clients (recognizing that some cost is inevitable with any exemption request). Now let’s try to see how it can apply to the Kim Davis controversy.

First, a technical but important legal point: Title VII expressly excludes elected officials. But Kentucky, like about 20 other states, has a state Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) statute that requires government agencies to exempt religious objectors from generally applicable laws, unless denying the exemption is the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest. The federal government also has a RFRA, which may apply to federal court orders issued to state elected officials.

Such RFRAs are narrower than Title VII (they apply only to the government) but also broader (they apply not just to employment but to all government action). Nothing in them exempts accommodation claims by elected officials. Moreover, the 1963-90 Free Exercise Clause rules that the RFRAs were meant to restore included protections for elected officials, see McDaniel v. Paty(1978); though McDaniel involved a rule that discriminated against religious practice, the plurality opinion treated it as a standard religious exemption request.

The terms of these RFRAs actually seem to offer greater protection for claimants — to deny an exemption, the government must show not just “undue hardship” but unavoidable material harm to a “compelling government interest.” Tagore v. United States (5th Cir. 2013) illustrates this: When Sikh IRS agent Kawaljeet Tagore sought a religious exemption from IRS’s no-weapons-in-the-workplace policy for her kirpan (a 3-inch dulled symbolic dagger), the court concluded that accommodating the request was an “undue hardship,” but allowed the RFRA claim to go forward, so that the trial court could determine whether denying the exemption “furthers a compelling government interest with the least restrictive means.” On the other hand, Harrell v. Donahue (8th Cir. 2011) took the view that, at least as to federal employees, RFRA provided no protections beyond those offered by Title VII.

The Kentucky appellate courts have had no occasion to interpret the Kentucky RFRA yet (it was enacted in 2013), and I don’t know of cases under other state RFRAs dealing with government employees or elected officials. But it’s very likely that (1) the Kentucky RFRA, by its terms, would apply to religious exemption claims brought by elected officials, and (2) it would provide at least the protections offered to ordinary employees by the Title VII religious accommodation regime, and possibly more.

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