As we make our way through the calendar year, a number of holidays come into play – not all of which are of equal importance to everyone. How many of us give a thought to our military on Veterans Day? Religious holidays do tend to command our attention, however, and this is true of the devout and the casually spiritual alike. Religious holidays also mean that many of us have a valid reason to be somewhere other than the workplace.
As with other occasions that may bring us into conflict with employment demands, the need to observe a religious holiday can lead to prickly legal issues. Does an employer have an obligation to let workers take the day off? If so, does the employer have to provide holiday pay? Let's examine the current laws as they pertain to religious holidays and the workplace.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
Religious discrimination in the workplace is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This means that employers are required to provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees who wish to fulfill their religious obligations—like taking the day off for a holiday relating to their faith. Therefore, employees aregenerally entitled to a day off from work on a religious holiday without fearing reprisal from their employer.
There are exceptions, however. Employers may be allowed to refuse a worker's request for a day off if the employee's absence would somehow “pose an undue hardship” to the company. For example, if the employee is needed to avert the development of hazardous workplace conditions, then the company may reasonably deny the request.
The Question of Holiday Pay
One question that always arises when dealing with this subject is whether the employer has to pay employees who take off a religious holiday. The answer is mo. Neither federal nor state law mandates pay for employees who observe these holidays. Furthermore, employers are not obligated to offer extra pay to employees who work on religious holidays.
Matters are a little different for state government employees. Workers in this category get paid for Christmas, when government offices are required to close. (Incidentally, they also get paid for Washington's Birthday, officially celebrated by the State of Georgia very close to Christmas, the exact day depending on which holiday falls on or around a weekend.)
In actuality, many private employers elect to close shop on major religious holidays and pay their employees as if these were normal workdays. Where this is not the case, employees often decide to take a PTO day. The best practice in these situations is for the employee to alert the company as soon as possible as to their intention to take the day off. Alternatively, some workers temporarily rearrange their schedule so they do not have to be in the workplace during the holiday. Again, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations.
Which Religions Are Recognized by the Law?
Virtually any “sincerely held religious practice or belief” is protected under Title VII. Recognized religions include not just traditional ones like Christianity and Judaism but also fringe belief systems observed by few and existing well outside the consciousness of the general public. Religions may be theistic or non-theistic in nature.
Please note, however, that the law respects only “sincerely held” beliefs. This means that the office prankster who invents a religion solely for the purpose of getting out of work probably will not be able to benefit from Title VII protections. The courts seldom tolerate these kinds of shenanigans.