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Utah lawmakers look to expand religious protections in the workplace

A screen capture of Republican Rep. Brady Brammer as he presents HB396, “Workplace Discrimination Amendments,” in front of the House Judiciary Committee, Feb. 2, 2024.
Courtesy Utah House of Representatives
A screen capture of Republican Rep. Brady Brammer as he presents HB396, “Workplace Discrimination Amendments,” in front of the House Judiciary Committee, Feb. 2, 2024.

Utah is well-known for its religiosity and now state lawmakers want to expand religious protections in the workplace.

A bill awaiting debate in the Senate would require all businesses to accommodate employees who have “sincerely held religious beliefs,” including the possible exemption from working certain days.

Republican bill sponsor Rep. Brady Brammer said HB396 builds off the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Groff v. DeJoy, which clarified the “undue hardship” standard under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court held that an employer must accommodate an employee with a religious conflict unless it can prove the accommodation results in “substantial increased costs” in operations or creates an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”

In a Feb. 2 committee hearing, Brammer said the high court confirmed religious protections in the workplace is a constitutional right under Title VII but it didn’t “provide any detail” on how to uphold those rights. His bill “provides a little bit of detail” on how to “properly implement” those protected rights within the state.

To explain, Brammer brought in Robin Wilson, a law professor at the University of Illinois who also helped craft the “Utah Compromise” bill that granted religious leaders protections against officiating same-sex marriages in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges. Speaking in a personal capacity, Wilson said the bill “fills a crucial gap” in federal code.

The religious exemptions on the federal level only pertain to companies with 15 or more employees. The Utah version would apply to all businesses, regardless of the size of the workforce.

That means “those who work for small employers in Utah do not have to check their religious beliefs at the office door,” she said. “Those who work for small employers deserve to be protected too. And that is done in this bill.”

The definition of “undue burden” is up for interpretation, though.

In an example presented by Wilson, she said if an employee asks their boss to step away from their duties to pray for 10 minutes, the employer would need to try and facilitate that.

But, “if the employer had no one else to cover while someone was engaged in a 10-minute prayer, that would be taken into account as an undue burden,” she explained and the employer “would have no duty” to meet the religious accommodation.

The same standard applies to employees who ask for a specific day off so they can worship. Under the bill, an employer would need to provide “a reasonable opportunity to accommodate the employee,” like scheduling another employee to work in their place. But Utah businesses with less than 15 employees would be exempted from this provision.

Overall, Brammer said the goal is for “employers to try to accommodate” the exercise of religion “when possible.”

Democratic Sen. Nate Blouin was one of two lawmakers who voted against the bill in the committee hearing. Blouin told KUER he questioned the need for the bill since there is “a very strong case” that residents already have “full religious freedom here in Utah” and the federal government already has such protections enshrined in the Constitution.

He also believes the bill “tips the scale” toward protecting religious employees above others who may not be religious at all.

“I'm fully supportive of people exercising their, as it says in the bill, ‘sincerely held religious beliefs.’ But I don't I don't think it should be at the expense of people who may not have sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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