The D.C. Department of Human Resources promotes workforce diversity and fosters an inclusive work environment as part of its equal employment opportunity commitments. As part of these commitments, DCHR requires all agencies under its authority to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs, observances, and practices of their employees upon request. Agencies must grant an employee’s request for a religious accommodation unless granting the accommodation would create an undue hardship as described in this issuance. This issuance provides agencies guidance on reviewing and processing employee requests for a religious accommodation.
A religious accommodation is any adjustment to the work environment that will allow an employee or applicant to practice their religion. An employee is eligible for a religious accommodation if their sincerely held religious beliefs, practices or observances conflict with their work requirements, unless the accommodation would create an undue hardship. Religious accommodations might include an exemption from a dress code that would otherwise prohibit an employee from wearing a religious head covering; or, from a work schedule that would otherwise interfere with an employee’s ability to attend religious services.
What are religious beliefs or practices?
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notes that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defines “religion” very broadly. A religion includes traditional organized religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Native American religions, and Unitarian Universalism, and includes religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, or only held by a small number of people. Social, political, or economic philosophies, or personal preferences are not considered religious beliefs under federal law.
What constitutes sincerely held?
A sincerely held religious belief may be a theistic belief or a non-theistic moral or ethical belief as to what is right and wrong that is held with the strength of traditional religious views. Given the broad scope of sincerely held religious beliefs, agencies may be unfamiliar with the specific beliefs, observances, and practices that are protected. For this reason, agencies should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for a religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held belief.
Nevertheless, there may be times when an agency has a reasonable basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, observance, or practice. Factors that may undermine the credibility of an employee’s assertion of a sincerely held religious belief, either alone or in combination, include:
- Whether the employee has acted in a manner that is markedly inconsistent with the professed belief;
- Whether the accommodation sought is a particularly desirable benefit that is likely to be sought for secular reasons. For example, some employees may view an exemption from the COVID-19 vaccination requirement as a desirable outcome and may seek such an outcome for non-religious reasons;
- Whether the timing of the request renders it suspect (e.g., it follows an earlier request by the employee for the same benefit for secular reasons); or
- Whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.
While the instances above may undermine the credibility of an employee’s assertion of a sincerely held religious belief, none of these factors are dispositive. While prior inconsistent conduct is relevant to the question of sincerity, an individual’s beliefs, or degree of adherence, may evolve overtime, and therefore an employee’s recently adopted or inconsistently observed religious practice may still be sincerely held.
CAUTION! Agencies should also not assume that an employee is insincere because some of their practices differ from the commonly followed tenets of the employee’s religion, or because the employee adheres to some common practices, but not others.
Unless otherwise established by the Director of DCHR, agencies shall process all religious accommodation requests. Agencies should process requests for religious accommodations by completing Part 2 of the Religious Accommodation Request Form and making determinations on a case-by-case basis in consultation with agency legal counsel, as appropriate.
NOTE TO AGENCIES: When requesting an accommodation, an employee does not need to use specific words such as “religious accommodation” to request an accommodation. Therefore, an agency is on notice of an employee’s request for a religious accommodation whenever an employee has requested an accommodation due to a conflict between the employee’s religious practice and a requirement for performing their position. Even so, employees must still fill out a Religious Accommodation Request Form (Attachment 1) and submit it to their supervisor or identified agency HR representative. Agencies who receive verbal requests for a religious accommodation should instruct employees to complete a Religious Accommodation Request Form.
Upon receipt of an accommodation request, agencies should:
- Determine if the request is due to a sincerely held religious belief and if the employee’s requested accommodation may cause an undue hardship. To help determine if the employee’s requested accommodation would cause an undue hardship to agency operations, schedule a time with the employee to discuss their accommodation request. Ask the employee for additional information about their beliefs and practices to determine if the requested accommodation can be granted without posing an undue hardship, or if alternate accommodations may be more appropriate. If the agency has a reasonable basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, also ask for additional information to determine whether an employee’s belief or practice is religious in nature and to determine whether a religious belief is sincerely held by the employee.
- Request supporting documents if needed. Documentation supporting a religious accommodation request may be necessary in some instances, but not always. For example, an agency may require documentation when there is an objective reason to question the sincerity of the employee’s religious beliefs. However, agencies should not as a matter of course require documentation. Instead, agencies should evaluate each request on its own merits and facts, and determine when, and if, documentation is needed.
Information about the employee’s religious observances, practices, or beliefs does not need to take any specific form. For example, written materials or the employee’s own first-hand explanation may be sufficient to alleviate the agency’s doubts about the sincerity or religious nature of the employee’s professed belief such that additional verification is unnecessary. Further, since idiosyncratic beliefs can be sincerely held and religious, even when third-party verification is requested, it does not have to come from a clergy member or fellow congregant, but rather could be provided by others who are aware of the employee’s religious practice or belief.
- Make a determination. An agency may deny a religious accommodation request if the agency can demonstrate that the accommodation would cause an undue hardship. The determination of whether a particular proposed accommodation imposes an undue hardship must be made on a case-by-case basis. An accommodation may cause undue hardship if it imposes a cost on the agency, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, violates a labor agreement, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.
If an agency asserts undue hardship based on cost, the agency must show more than a minimal impact upon the agency’s business cost to the agency. The hardship upon the agency cannot be merely speculative and must be genuine. Finally, if an employee’s original request would cause an undue hardship to the agency’s operations, the agency must reasonably accommodate the employee in a manner that does not cause undue hardship to the agency. If the agency determines other accommodations would cause an undue hardship, an employee shall have the option of taking leave without pay if granting leave without pay would not cause an undue hardship to the agency.
An agency may also deny a religious accommodation request if it determines that the underlying belief or practice is not religious in nature, or that the religious belief is not sincerely held by the employee.
As noted above, the agency should ordinarily assume that an employee's request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief. However, after engaging in the interactive process with the employee, the agency may conclude that an asserted belief is not religious (for example, the agency may conclude that the belief is social or political) or that the belief is not sincerely held by the employee (the agency may conclude that the employee’s assertion of sincerity is not credible).
If denied a religious accommodation, an employee may first consult with the agency designee who made the initial determination to request reconsideration.
If unresolved, for complaints related to a failure to accommodate a religious belief, practice, or observance, DC government employees must first consult a certified agency EEO Counselor within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act (or discovery thereof) prior to filing a complaint with the Office of Human Rights (OHR). If the matter is not resolved at the agency level, once the EEO Counselor issues an employee an “exit letter,” they may file an official complaint with OHR. For more information on filing a complaint, go to ohr.dc.gov.