Complete or Partial Accommodation: An Analysis of the Federal Circuit Split Over the Duty of the Employer to Reasonably Accommodate the Religious Beliefs of the Employee

28 Pages Posted: 6 Apr 2013

Date Written: December 31, 2012


Current law against religious discrimination in the workplace bars discrimination on the basis of religion and requires that an employer reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs of an employee unless doing so would create an undue hardship on the employer.

Recently, a division has arisen among the federal circuits as to what constitutes an appropriate accommodation. There are currently two different tests for determining whether a reasonable accommodation has been offered by an employer. As referred to in this Note, these two tests are the “complete accommodation test” and the “partial accommodation test.” The complete accommodation test ensures that the accommodation totally eliminates the conflict between the employee’s religious beliefs and the employment requirements. The partial accommodation test does not necessarily eliminate this conflict. Rather, the test only demands that the accommodation be “reasonable” in light of the circumstances, even if this requires a compromise of the employee’s religious beliefs.

Many of the federal circuit courts hold to the complete accommodation test. But in 2008, the Fourth and Eighth Circuits both embraced the partial accommodation test. These two decisions mark a definitive split among the circuits over the protection afforded to employees to exercise their religious beliefs within the workplace.

Part I of this Note briefly explores the history of Title VII and the specific accommodation requirement found in § 701(j) of the Civil Rights Act. It also provides a synopsis of the only two Supreme Court decisions that have interpreted § 701(j).

Part II examines the circuit split over the complete and partial accommodation tests. It summarizes the key cases in five of the United States Courts of Appeals that hold to the complete accommodation test. Then, it studies the Fourth and Eighth Circuits’ decisions that adopted the partial accommodation test. It provides an account of the facts as well as an overview of the arguments made for both tests.

Part III looks at the problems with the partial accommodation test. First, the test is flawed in its formation according to the legislative intent behind and statutory construction of § 701(j), as well as according to the precedent provided by the Supreme Court. Second, the test is unlawful in its implications by allowing the courts to unconstitutionally decide on the reasonableness of an employee’s religious beliefs.

Finally, Part IV suggests that the Supreme Court should clarify which accommodation test (complete or partial) is correct in light of§ 701(j). It provides several reasons why the Supreme Court should hear this issue, and it also suggests how the Court should decide.

Keywords: complete accommodation, partial accommodation, EEOC, religious discrimination, Title VII, § 701(j), Civil Rights Act, Firestone, Sturgill

Suggested Citation

Hull, Andrew, Complete or Partial Accommodation: An Analysis of the Federal Circuit Split Over the Duty of the Employer to Reasonably Accommodate the Religious Beliefs of the Employee (December 31, 2012). Regent University Law Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2012, Available at SSRN:

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