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Evolving Intersection of Pride and Religious Accommodations: What Employers Need to Know

June is Pride month, a time when many employers look to incorporate new ways to show support for the LGBTQ+ community, including displaying a Pride flag. A recently filed case in California serves as a timely reminder that such displays might result in religious accommodation requests and leave many employers asking – what do we do?

On May 24, a California lifeguard, Jeffrey Little, sued the Los Angeles County Fire Department – his employer – claiming it discriminated against his religious beliefs by making him work near a Pride flag at his assigned guard station last summer and disciplining him for taking down three of the flags. While Little and his employer had agreed on partial accommodation arrangements for this year's Pride month, Little still believes he has failed to be fully accommodated, as he, for example, still has to instruct his subordinates to raise and lower the flag. This case is still pending in the Central District of California.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits religious discrimination, harassment, and requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs when they conflict with a work requirement. For employers, accommodations can be a complex subject, and following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Groff v. DeJoy last summer, the issue has become even trickier, as the court increased the burden on employers before they reject a requested accommodation. 

With Little pending in California and the case law on accommodations following Groff sparse, employers might be left wondering, what does this all mean? A case out of the Fourth Circuit might provide at least some helpful guidance on the subject. 

In Tolle v. Rockwell Collins Control Techs., Inc., a district court in Virginia summarily dismissed the claims of a plaintiff who complained about his employer flying a Pride flag. First, the court found no failure to accommodate because the employee had not identified any particular work requirement that was in conflict with his religious beliefs. The court noted Title VII issues arise only when an employer proactively requires or encourages the employee to do something in conflict with their religious beliefs. 

Specifically, the court held “merely expecting” an employee to work in the same area that a Pride flag is generally displayed for one month “does not amount to asking him to adhere to a conflicting ‘employment requirement,’” as compared to requiring the employee to attend a Pride parade. Likewise, the court disposed of his hostile work environment claim because Tolle failed to allege any sort of severe or pervasive harassing conduct, or requirements to that effect, directed at him or due to his religion. 

While Tolle provides helpful guidance, the case predates Groff. Without clear precedent, and against the backdrop of Little, employers should continue to be mindful of the seemingly open questions that exist at this intersection and as the law continues to developNonetheless, when faced with accommodation requests, employers should continue to take such requests seriously and work with employees to determine whether accommodation may be warranted. 

Hunter Seidler, summer associate, co-authored this article. 


labor and employment