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Jugglers have long fought for job flexibility to handle family needs.
Now, time off for religious observances is becoming a hot issue too.

In the past few months alone, such disputes have surfaced from New York to Tennessee. In one case, a Nashville hospital settled federal discrimination charges over its refusal to let a Muslim medical technician take 20 days’ accumulated vacation time to visit Mecca; the hospital denied any wrongdoing. In another, a policeman in New York state was given Friday nights and Saturdays off to observe sabbath as a Seventh-day Adventist, just as a Jewish co-worker was allowed. Federal law prohibits employers from singling out workers for worse treatment because of their religion.

A New York reader raises a sensitive time-off question in a recent “Work & Family Mailbox” column. A family member, an observant Jew who can’t work Saturdays or Jewish holidays, wants to apply for a government job that requires 24/7 availability for shift work. Is there any law that requires the agency to accommodate his beliefs? the reader asks.

Federal civil-rights law and 1997 White House guidelines require government agencies to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees’ religious observances, as long as doing so doesn’t impose an “undue hardship,” or more than a minimal cost or burden, on the employer, says Salvatore Gangemi, a New York City employment lawyer. Accommodation isn’t required if it would force the employer to violate a union agreement.

But employers have quite a bit of latitude to deny religious accommodation. Attorneys say “undue hardship” can include posing an even a minor obstacle to normal operations. For example, courts have held in favor of employers in cases where granting an employee’s request “diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, or causes co-workers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work,” the EEOC says.

All these examples raise thought-provoking questions about the politics of managing time off at work. If a working mother gets to leave for a child’s school play, should a practicing Muslim get breaks for daily prayer? If some employees routinely take late-afternoons off to coach soccer, should an observant Jew be allowed to leave early on Fridays for Sabbath?

Readers, have you ever asked, or seen a co-worker ask, for job flexibility for religious reasons? How well was the request handled? And how should such requests be weighed in relation to other time-off needs, such as family duties?

Copyright 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.