Canada: Accommodating Religious Beliefs In The Workplace

Last Updated: May 1 2014
Article by Landon Miller

Most Read Contributor in Canada, November 2016

Recent events at York University have brought the complex and evolving discussion about the duty to accommodate religious beliefs into the national spotlight. The situation at York University involved a male student who claimed his religious beliefs prevented him from engaging in face-to-face group work with female students. The media attention that resulted in the disagreement between the student's professor and York University over how to accommodate the student's request shows just how difficult it can be for public institutions and employers to address this issue.

Human rights legislation exists in each jurisdiction that protects individuals from discrimination in employment. Specifically, employers are prohibited from discriminating against potential or current employees on certain grounds, including race, national or ethnic origin, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, and disability.

Implied in the prohibition against discrimination is a positive duty on the part of the employer to accommodate their employees' needs for reasons associated with recognized discriminatory grounds, which is known more simply as the duty to accommodate. This requires accommodation of an employee based on the protected discriminatory ground to the point of undue hardship. This standard is highly fact-specific in each employment relationship. As evidenced by the York University incident, accommodation of religious beliefs can be a controversial topic, particularly as organizations respond to an increasingly diverse workforce or student population.

Generally, employers will be able to accommodate religious requests by providing days off work or short leaves of absence to allow the employee to participate in religious observances or holidays. However, other requests which may detrimentally impact the operations of the employer's business, or bring competing rights into play may be more difficult to implement. Failure to properly accommodate an employee's religious beliefs could not only lead to potential human rights complaints, but also negative media coverage, as was the case with York University.

Employers should consider the following guiding principles when determining how to accommodate their employees' religious beliefs, particularly in light of the obligation to accommodate to the point of undue hardship:

  • Health and Safety: Does complying with the request endanger the health and safety of the requesting employee or others in the workplace? Are there any measures the employer can institute to mitigate those health and safety risks and accommodate the employee's request without causing undue hardship to the employer?
  • Cost: Is the cost of accommodating the employee's request substantial? If not, it often will not rise to the level of undue hardship.
  • Conflicting Rights: The duty to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs must not result in discrimination against another employee. Such conflicts will usually rise to the point of undue hardship for the employer and will justify modifying or refusing the employee's request.

A final consideration for employers is that the law does not require accommodation to the complete satisfaction of the requesting employee. Rather, the employer is obligated to find reasonable accommodations for both the employee and the employer in the context of the specific employment relationship.

Satisfying the duty to accommodate is highly fact specific exercise in which both the employee and employer must participate. Employers are well advised to contact legal counsel at the outset of an employee request to accommodate religious beliefs or any other request for accommodation, in order to mitigate any potential for conflict, unwanted media attention or costly litigation.

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