Yaniv Sides applied to be a New York State Police trooper. Sides passed the written test and in a letter dated July 13, 2001, was advised that his position on the trooper-eligible candidate list had been reached and that in order to continue the process it was necessary for him to report for further processing. Sides wrote a letter in response stating that he would not report on the date in question “due to the fact that I am a Sabbath observer, I cannot take any test on a Saturday,” and asked for another weekday to complete his process.
Sides is an Orthodox Jew who strictly practices his faith. Sides’ Sabbath starts at sundown Friday night and ends when there are three stars in the sky on Saturday night, a period of approximately 25 hours. During this length of time, Sides is unable to take part in a any activity considered “work” under Jewish law. He also cannot engage in such activities as answering the telephone, pushing an elevator button, driving a car, or utilizing a police radio. There are also a number of holidays throughout the year where the same work and other restrictions are applicable.
Eventually, the State Police refused to reschedule Sides’ processing. An attorney for the State Police told Sides that “each and every member of the New York State Police must be available to work, unconditionally, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This requirement includes the necessity to be available for work on Saturdays, the Jewish high holidays, as well as other secular and non-secular holidays. In light of your stated inability to participate in a physical ability test due to your religious observances, we assume that you are unavailable to work as a New York State trooper on Saturdays and for religious holidays. For this reason, there is no practical purpose to reschedule the test.”
Sides brought a lawsuit against the State, alleging he was the victim of religious discrimination. Sides’ case ended up turning on the extent of the State’s obligation to “reasonably accommodate” Sides’ religious beliefs. A federal trial court found that an accommodation that results in an imposition on other employees or causes the employer to bear more than de minimis costs is an “undue hardship,” and is not the sort of “reasonable accommodation” an employer is obligated to make.
The Court observed that where the business of the employer is protecting the lives and property of citizens, “a court should be especially leery of reconstructing employment practices which are essentially designed to increase the professional competence of the Department.”
The Court concluded that the State had no obligation to accommodate Sides’ religious beliefs. The Court found that “it is apparent from Sides’ statements that, even if he became a trooper, his work schedule would not permit him to observe the Sabbath and certain Jewish holidays. While he might be able to observe these religious occurrences by instituting a series of shift-swaps with fellow troopers for the dates on which they fell, he would not be able to do so during his first year as a trooper. The collective bargaining agreement between the State and the Police Benevolent Association prohibits probationary troopers from voluntarily swapping shifts during their one-year probationary time period.
“Shift swapping is a right of seniority, and the State is not required to carve out a special exception to its seniority system in order to help an employee meet his religious obligations. It is well established the neutral operation of a bona fide seniority system, even if it has some discriminatory consequences, does not violate the proscription against religious discrimination in employment. There has been no showing that the State’s seniority system is not bona fide, or that it was intended to discriminate against religious minorities.”
The Court was also concerned that Sides’ inability to work on his Sabbath would prohibit his recall in an emergency: “If Sides was granted workday exemptions for the Sabbath and certain Jewish holidays, and his name came up on the mandatory recall list for emergency duty, his place would have to be taken by a more experienced trooper. That would mean a more experienced trooper would be required to work in Sides’ place while Sides was exempted from his contractual responsibility. This event could be a possible source of co-worker animosity, as well as a violation of the contract’s seniority system. Juggling assignments to make each compatible with the varying religious beliefs of a heterogeneous police force would be daunting for managers and difficult for other officers who would be called on to fill in for the event.”
Sides v. New York State Division of State Police, 2005 WL 1527557 (N.D.N.Y. 2005).
This article appears in the August 2005 issue