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The holiday season is upon us -- the season of religious holidays, leaves of absence, and potential discrimination lawsuits. In-house counsel across the country are probably inundated with questions and requests from their human resource departments.
As the holiday season approaches, many employees are likely requesting time off work to celebrate religious holidays. And while most companies do provide time off for Christmas, HR staff may be wondering what do to with requests for time off for Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and other religious days.
Providing time off for religious holidays may be one of the trickiest issues that in-house counsel have to deal with. On the one hand, you likely have a "floating holiday" or leave-of-absence policy and may want to accommodate the religious beliefs of your workforce.
On the other hand, the holiday season may be your busiest season, and you may be unsure how to handle hundreds of different requests for time off when you need maximum staffing.
To cap off the perils of time off for religious holidays, if you deny a request for leave, you may be slapped with a religious discrimination lawsuit that could cost you significant sums of money. So what should you do?
Generally, if you provide time off for certain religious holidays, you may need to provide time off for others as well. However, this does not mean that any employee can simply request Dec. 15 off because their self-made religion declared that to be a holiday. Instead, religions typically have to be bona fide religions and the holiday needs to be a bona fide religious holiday.
It can be an extremely difficult task though to determine what is (and is not) considered a religion, as several Supreme Court decisions can attest to.
The reality is that you don't want to turn all of your religious accommodation cases into test cases for the High Court. That's not a good business practice, and the litigation could potentially bankrupt your company.
Instead, when it comes to providing time off for religious holidays, you may just have to go with what is reasonable for your company. Ask yourself whether your company can afford the employee's absence and the kind of precedent it may set. The decision can be very difficult, and that's why you get paid the big bucks. But make sure not to take the question lightly, as religious holidays could lead to your company getting sued.