In EEOC v. North Memorial Health Care, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota held that religious accommodation requests are not protected conduct under Title VII, and therefore, cannot be the basis for a retaliation claim. The EEOC alleged that North Memorial retaliated against a prospective employee when the employer rescinded a job offer after the prospect told the employer she couldn’t work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday for religious reasons. Judge David S. Doty granted North Memorial’s motion for summary judgment, noting the EEOC failed to establish that the plaintiff’s request met the definition for protected conduct under the statute. The holding is the first on this issue within the Eighth Circuit.
“This decision is useful in defending employers against retaliation claims,” says Veena Iyer, labor and employment attorney with Nilan Johnson Lewis, whose is often called upon to advise clients on religious accommodation requests and discrimination claims. Iyer says it’s important to note that although requesting a religious accommodation isn’t protected conduct, filing a complaint can be. “If an employee complains about the denial of a request for religious accommodation, the complaint can be protected activity under Title VII, although the court held that request alone is not.” An appeal to the Eighth Circuit is probable because the EEOC—particularly the Minneapolis office—has prioritized prosecution of religious discrimination and accommodation claims and because there are decisions outside the circuit supporting the EEOC’s interpretation. Regardless of the outcome of the case, Iyer recommends that employers thoroughly document all processes and decisions regarding religious accommodations and any complaints regarding their denial in order to defend against failure-to-accommodate and retaliation claims. To speak with Veena Iyer on the topic of religious accommodations, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612.305.7695.