Practice Areas

Employer that Terminated Employee for Taking Leave to Attend Father's Funeral Faces Trial for Failure to Accommodate Employee's Religion

August 2013

By: Phoebe A. Taurick, Esq.

In an especially relevant case to employers with large immigrant workforces, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit allowed an employee to proceed to a jury regarding a claim that the employer failed to accommodate his religion. In Adeyeye v. Heartland Sweeteners, Inc. the employee requested five weeks of unpaid leave to travel to Nigeria so he could lead his father's burial rites. The employer, however, did not approve this and as a result the employee alternatively requested to use one week of earned vacation plus an additional three weeks of unpaid leave. In doing so, the employee described religious burial rites such as animal sacrifice, and stated his participation is "compulsory . . . so that death will not come or take away any of the children's life." Despite the employer again denying the leave, the employee traveled to Nigeria for the ceremony. When he returned, his employment was terminated, and the employee sued the employer for failure to accommodate his religion.

Similar to disability claims, employers are required to reasonably accommodate employee's honestly held religious beliefs unless the employer can show doing so would impose an undue hardship. In this case, the court was not persuaded by the employer's argument that it did not have notice that the employee's request was religious in nature, as there was evidence indicating the employee's requests provided enough notice that the employer knew or should have known he was seeking a religious accommodation. Next, the employer attempted to argue that the employee did not wish to attend the burial rites for his own sincerely held religious belief, but rather for those of his deceased father. The court again rejected the employer's argument, stating the issue is the employee's sincerity in the beliefs, not his reasons or motives for holding such beliefs. Keeping this in mind, the court again held there was enough evidence to submit the question of whether the employee requested a leave due to a sincerely held religious belief. Finally, the employer argued it would have been an undue hardship to grant the employee's leave. However, the court disagreed, pointing out that the employee's position has a high turnover rate, and is largely staffed by temporary workers.

This case presents the following items that employers should keep in mind, when dealing with an issue of religious accommodation:

  • The term "religion" is broader than simply the well-known, traditional religions, and does not even require belief in some form of deity or deities.
  • Employers may have to modify workplace rules, grant leave, or otherwise accommodate employees' religions.
  • Employees with a common faith may have different religious needs.
  • As with accommodation requests for individuals with disabilities, employers need to engage in the same good faith interactive process to determine if a religious accommodation is possible.

For assistance in understanding and dealing with requests for religious accommodation or issues dealing with religious discrimination, contact a Wessels Sherman attorney or email [email protected].