One of the most notable ripple effects of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding same-sex marriage rights has been the refusal of Kim Davis, Kentucky’s Rowan County Clerk, to issue marriage licenses. While the public’s interest in this drama may be about the gay marriage issue, employers are interested in issues of workplace religious accommodation.
Employees are entitled to accommodation of religious beliefs and practices in their jobs. This can include the right of an employee to refuse to perform a certain duty if it violates a sincerely held religious belief. This is more commonly known as conscientious objection.
There is no legal protection for conscientious objection, per se. The objection must be rooted in a law that grants employees protection from employer actions. The one at issue in the Kim Davis case, and the most common one, is religious beliefs. Because the Civil Rights Act provides federal protection against adverse employment actions based on religious beliefs, conscientious objection on that basis is protected by law.
What is not protected is objections based on something like political beliefs. For example, a county employee who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because he believed the U.S. Constitution only allowed licenses for opposite-sex couples, would find no legal support for his action.
The right to refuse performance of duties or to otherwise follow employer policies for religious reasons is not ironclad. The obligation of an employer in such a situation is to reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs where they conflict with job responsibilities. If the assertion of a religion-based refusal to perform a task can be accommodated without undue hardship to the employer, it must be granted. Following the marriage license scenario, if an employee who normally issues licenses could be moved to a job in the office that does not deal with them, that would constitute a reasonable accommodation.
Employees are not, however, entitled to an accommodation of their choice. Employers may solve the need for accommodation in any reasonable manner they choose, as long as the solution fully meets the religion-based need of the employee. The county employee above might have requested to remain in his job and that same-sex couples be referred to other workers for licenses. But if the employer decided to accommodate his religious objection by transferring him to a different job, that decision would prevail.
Ironically, although the case of the Rowan County Clerk in Kentucky gives rise to this discussion, the legal analyses do not apply because, alas, she is not an employee. Ms. Davis is an elected official. Consequently, she is not subject to termination and therefore not in need of reasonable accommodation. Contact us today to speak with an experienced discrimination attorney in California.
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