In the last few years, there has been a notable increase in the number of religious-discrimination lawsuits. Theologians hail this burst in litigation as a sign that Americans are returning to the fold. Pessimists say that workers are just looking for another excuse to work less.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and most state laws, prohibit employers from discriminating on the basis of religious beliefs. Where workers articulate a need to express their religious beliefs and practice in the workplace, employers are generally required to accommodate them--unless doing so would cause the employer undue hardship.

As in all other claims where the term comes up, the meaning of undue hardship in this context gives employers and courts cause for pause. The U.S. Supreme Court has pronounced twice on the issue.

In Trans World Airlines Inc. v. Hardison, (432 U.S. 135 (1977)) an airline employee claimed that his religion, the Worldwide Church of God, forbade him from working on Saturdays. In Subsequent meetings, TWA union officials argued that allowing the employee to change shifts would violate a collective bargaining agreement that banned the arrangement for workers without sufficient seniority. The Court agreed, holding that the union agreement was more sacrosanct than the religious practices.

Nearly a decade later, the Court again heard the pleas of a member of the Worldwide Church of God--this time arguing that he needed six days off per school year for religious observance. The sticking point again was a collective bargaining agreement providing only three days of paid leave for religious observation. The Court waffled some on its opinion, holding that the court below would decide whether providing unpaid leave to make up the balance was a reasonable accommodation (Ansonia Board of Education v. Philbrook, 479 U.S. 60 (1979)).

Since then, the lower courts that have faced the issue have reached differing conclusions about what is an undue burden for employers. A Florida police officer's request for Saturdays off was denied " for public safety reasons." But a New Mexico court rules that a truck driver was illegally denied a job because of his practice of smoking peyote during a Native American ritual. And a California court shot down an employer's order that banned religious artifacts in all worker's cubicles and prevented them from any type of " religious advocacy" on the job.

For now, employers and employees grappling with the issue would be best serves to work together to reach an accommodation--and keep the issue out of the uncharted territory of court decisions.

Copyright 1999, Inc.