In today’s work world, companies cannot summarily reject
employees who present requests for religious
accommodations without a thorough investigation and
then weighing the cost of such a rejection.
Stephen Cavanaugh is a prisoner in the Nebraska
State Penitentiary. Cavanaugh says he is a
Pastafarian (i.e., a believer in the divine Flying
Spaghetti Monster (FSM) and he practices the religion
In the case of Canavaugh v. Bartelt, Cavanaugh claims that
prison officials refused to accommodate him so that he
could pray to the FSM.
What does a case in a penitentiary system have to do with
Well when an individual has a sincerely-held belief,
whether at work or as a prisoner, an organization has an
obligation to at least consider any requests for
accommodations for that belief.
The basics of all religious accommodations start with a
sincerely-held belief. But is a sincerely-held belief
In this case, a Nebraska federal court noted three
hallmarks of religion:
First: A religion addresses fundamental and ultimate
questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters.
Second: A religion is comprehensive in nature; it consists
of a belief-system as opposed to an isolated teaching.
Third: A religion often can be recognized by the presence
of certain formal and external signs.
As such, the judge ruled that FSMism is not a religion.
The judge noted about FSMism, “It is, rather, a parody,
intended to advance an argument about science, the
evolution of life, and the place of religion in public
education. Those are important issues, and FSMism
contains a serious argument, but that does not mean that
the trappings of the satire used to make that argument are
entitled to protection as a ‘religion.’”
However, Wikipedia notes that Pastafarianism is legally
recognized as a religion in Poland, The Netherlands, and
New Zealand. So far in the U.S., we seem to be safe from
the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Here are the takeaways from this material.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids
employers from discriminating against employees based on
The EEOC notes, “the law protects not only people who
belong to traditional, organized religions, such as
Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, but
also others who have sincerely held religious, ethical or
So what should a company do when confronted with an
employee who has a request for a religious accommodation?
#1 A company should take all such requests seriously,
gather information about the belief along the lines of the
3 hallmarks noted above, research the belief, and make a
determination about the belief as a religion. If the
belief can be dismissed as “not a religion,” then the
request may be denied depending on #2 and #3 below.
#2 In an objective a manner as possible, the company needs
to assess the sincerity of the employee’s belief, whether
or not the company considers the belief a religion. If it
can be proven that an employee is merely using a belief to
escape from some work activity, then the accommodation
request can be dismissed.
#3 Here is the clincher: The company needs to determine
the actual cost of any requested accommodation. (a) If
the cost is minimal and the employee has a sincerely-held
belief, it doesn’t really matter whether the belief is a
recognized religion or not, most employment lawyers and
the EEOC would say, “accommodate.” (b) If the cost is
more than minimal, then whether the belief is a religion
or not or sincerely-held or not, the company needs to
weigh the cost of any potential litigation to the cost of
the requested accommodation.
This EEOC “minimal cost” standard in #3 above is different
than the “undue hardship” standard under the ADA.
See the section “More than De Minimis Cost” in the EEOC
Compliance Manual at the website below:
To say the least, companies are in a difficult spot these
days especially with “soft” standards such as “minimal
cost.” Besides trying to run a profitable business,
executives are called upon to determine:
*What is a religion?
*What are essential functions of a job?
*What is the real cost of an accommodation in terms of
money, people, morale, productivity, company size?
And these are just a few of the labor issues that do not
have any hard and fast solutions.
The best advice with such issues is to give these requests
serious consideration, conduct the research, and document
your decisions and reasoning.
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