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Is an employee entitled to a “religious accommodation” that allows bereavement leave after the death of a loved one?

A recent case suggests that the answer is yes in some circumstances. In the case decided last month, Adeyeye v. Heartland Sweeteners, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals extended the concept of religious accommodation to possibly cover attendance at a relative’s funeral. Specifically, in the Adeyeye case, an employee requested several weeks’ unpaid leave in order to participate in his father’s funeral in Africa. The employee went so far as to send two letters to the company, explaining that it was mandatory for him to attend this funeral, and that unless he performed certain rituals, including slaughtering five goats, “death will . . .come and take away” his and his sibling’s lives. This request was denied, and the company fired the employee after he left and went to the funeral anyway.

The appeals court ruled that a jury may find that the two letters provided sufficient notice of a religious accommodation request. According to the court, the letters’ references to compulsory attendance at a “funeral ceremony” and “funeral rite” and the reference to potential death of family members if the ceremony was not performed sufficiently gave a religious aspect to the request. The court concluded that although these religious beliefs may not be as familiar as some modern American practices, the law protects all sincerely held religious beliefs.

And that is the key requirement for employees seeking religious accommodation at work – they should be able to show that the accommodation they seek (whether time off, wearing special garb, etc.) is a sincerely held belief, and that the accommodation is reasonably called for by the employee’s religion.

If you have questions about what constitutes a religious accommodation, call employment attorney Doug Kertscher at (678) 384-7440. All information you provide is kept strictly confidential by law.