Dear Legal Mailbag:

Under our teacher contract, requests for leave come first to me as the building principal, and then they go to the assistant superintendent with my recommendation. Yesterday, I got a request that is giving me a headache. A fairly senior teacher put in for three days under the “religious holidays” provision in the contract. Given that I am not aware of any recognized religious holidays in February, I stopped by his class to get the full story.

The teacher bristled with annoyance as soon as I asked him what holiday he wants to take off. “I knew this would happen,” he complained. “I should have called in sick.” That kind of talk ticks me off, and we got into it. I told him that I am responsible for making sure that we comply with the contract, and I directed him to answer my question. It turns out that he wants to go on a religious retreat with his church to build houses in Georgia.

That sounds sweet, and I told him so. But I also told him that he should go build houses over the summer and that I would not be approving leave for that purpose. At that point, the teacher accused me of discriminating against him on the basis of his religion. He claimed that teachers get leave for any number of things, and it would be discriminatory for me to deny him the requested leave just because it is a religious activity. Should I be worried?

Praying for Guidance
Dear Praying:

The teacher got one thing right – you and the school district are prohibited under state and federal law from discriminating against teachers on the basis of religion. But the teacher was totally wrong in accusing you of doing so.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of various protected characteristics, including religion. 42 USCA § 2000e-2. Similarly, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46a-60(a) is the state law that prohibits discrimination on various bases, including religion. Both statutes prohibit overt discrimination, i.e., adverse employment actions against an employee or prospective employee on the basis of his or her religion. It is also considered a discriminatory act not to provide reasonable accommodation to the religious observance or practice of an employee.

What is “reasonable accommodation” under Title VII was in issue in Ansonia Board of Education v. Philbrook, 479 U.S. 60 (U.S. 1986), one of the very few cases involving a Connecticut school district decided by the United States Supreme Court. Mr. Philbrook, a business teacher in Ansonia, had joined the World Wide Church of God, the tenets of which required that adherents abstain from secular employment such that Mr. Philbrook had to take six days off from school each year. Mr. Philbook proposed that the school district accommodate his religious beliefs by permitting him to take additional paid personal leave or permitting him paid leave with the cost of the substitute deducted. However, the Court rejected Mr. Philbrook’s claim that the district’s denial of his request was discriminatory. It held that an employer need only offer a reasonable accommodation to an employee’s religious observance or practice and that the employer is not bound to accept an alternative accommodation as an employee may propose, even if it is reasonable.

In this particular case, the teacher doesn’t even get to argue about reasonable accommodation. That duty is triggered when an employee’s religious observance or practice requires that the employee take action or refrain from action (e.g., follow dietary restrictions, wear a head covering, take time off from work, attend services). Here, the employee simply wants to take time off to do good works, with an organization that happens to be religious. He was not acting under religious obligation and you had every right to deny his request for paid leave. This teacher has no valid objection under Title VII or otherwise, so help me God.

Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter.
Written by attorney Thomas B. Mooney.