When Work and Faith Collide

By Joe Hunt and James Korte

When it enacted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress stated a desire to assure individuals additional opportunities to observe religious practices when they conflict with employment.  But what does it mean that, short of an undue hardship, employers must make ‘reasonable accommodations’ for the religious practices of their employees?  In Tabura v. Kellogg USA, No. 16-4135, (10th Cir. Jan. 17, 2018), the Tenth Circuit affirmed that the answer inevitably requires a fact-specific, case-by-case analysis.  Because of the fact-specific nature of such claims, the employer in this case could not win on summary judgment, and the case must proceed to a trial.

At Kellogg’s plant in Clearfield, Utah, the company divided its workforce into shifts of ‘continuous crewing.’  Employees were required to work every other Saturday.  While Kellogg permitted employees to swap shifts or take accrued paid time off for absences, the shifts conflicted with two Seventh Day Adventist employees’ practice not to work from sundown on Friday through sunset on Saturday.  They sued the company because Kellogg assessed disciplinary points against them for observing the Sabbath.  At the outset,  the Tenth Circuit firmly rejected the notion that, to be reasonable, an accommodation must “eliminate” the conflict between employees’ religious practice and work requirements.  However, because accommodation questions are fact-specific, a jury trial was necessary to determine the reasonableness of the employer’s accommodations. This case is another reminder that even even-handed “neutral” policies may need to give way to accommodations of employees’ religious beliefs.