Chinese New YearToday marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year, which is also known as the Spring Festival. Traditionally and especially in China, this celebration last 15 days. This festival is also a celebration that involves both cultural and religious elements. For this reason, it is an excellent backdrop for discussing an employer’s obligations on accommodating religious beliefs of employees.

The Chinese New Year

The Chinese New Year is characterized by one of 12 animals that appear in the Chinese zodiac. This year’s animal is the monkey. As to the dual role religion and culture plays in the holiday, the History.com website explains: 

In preparation for the holiday, homes were thoroughly cleaned to rid them of ‘huiqi,’ or inauspicious breaths, which might have collected during the old year. Cleaning was also meant to appease the gods who would be coming down from heaven to make inspections. Ritual sacrifices of food and paper icons were offered to gods and ancestors.

Accommodating Employee’s Religious Beliefs

Under federal law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees and applicants based on religion. Additionally, Title VII requires employers to make reasonable accommodations (if requested) to the sincerely held religious practices of employees, so long as the accommodation does not impose an “undue hardship” on the employer’s business. Reasonable accommodations often include time off for religious observances.
Religious accommodations for employers are especially tricky. This is because the term “religion” includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief. U.S. Code, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e. It is also important for employers to understand that traditional and unconventional religious beliefs are protected under Title VII if they are sincerely held.

Bona fide religious beliefs include “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” See, e.g., 29 C.F.R. § 1605.1 (citing United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 85 S.Ct. 850, 13 L.Ed.2d 733 (1965)).

Closing Considerations about Religious Accommodations
Whether an employer would be required to accommodate an employee’s observance of the Chinese New Year, or any other religious belief, will depend on the issues discussed above, as well as other fact-specific issues. This is particularly the case where one person may celebrate the Chinese New Year for cultural reasons, but another person observes it as a matter of a sincerely held religious belief, or a combination of both.

In this situation, it is necessary for applicants and employees to understand that if they seek a religious accommodation, they must make the employer aware both of the need for accommodation and that it is being requested due to a conflict between religion and work.  The employee further needs to understand that it is the employee who has the obligation to explain the religious nature of the belief or practice at issue, and cannot assume that the employer will already know or understand it. See the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Compliance Manual.

For employers, when developing a religious accommodation policy, companies should include:

  • An affirmative statement that the company is committed to providing reasonable accommodations of an applicant or employees’ religious beliefs, observances and practices consistent with state and federal law.
  • Holiday policies should address how employers treat secular and religious holidays.
  • Provisions for accommodating employees’ dress and appearance practices that are based on religion.

As with all company employee policies and procedures, your religious policy should be reviewed by an experienced employment attorney to ensure it complies with Title VII and other federal, state and local nondiscrimination laws.

For more information about religious discrimination issues or accommodating an employee’s request for a religious accommodation, contact employment attorney Jason Shinn.