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Scheduling is merely inconvenient

Q: I am a physician. My hospital schedules us to work a few weekends a year. Like other doctors, I'm occasionally assigned to split a pair of weekends with someone who makes religious observance on Saturdays, so that he can work two Sundays, burdening me with two weekends of obligation. Is it okay to make me accommodate someone's religious practices?

A: It is vexing to draw an unwanted weekend shift. But unappealing is not a synonym for unethical: Your department does no wrong. Indeed, the law requires it to act as it has. Judith Conti, a lawyer with the Employment Justice Center in Washington, explains: "Arrangements like this are very common, very commonsense and very respectful. There is a legal obligation for an employer to take reasonable steps to accommodate religious observation."

An employer may require employees to take such time as a personal day or a sick day or the like, or to swap shifts with an amenable colleague. And it is okay for your department to dragoon you to fill in while a colleague prays. Someone has to work the vacated shift. This is routinely done to staff unpopular shifts - nights, for example. Or Sundays. Your hospital simply adds another day for religious observance. Scheduling should be equitable, transparent and responsive to employee wishes, but it cannot always give everyone his ideal shift.

The problem is not that your department and the law go too far but that they don't go far enough. Why grant religious observance greater consideration than secular pursuits? Is my time spent reading Aristotle (by which I mean watching basketball on TV) less worthy than yours spent contemplating the eternal (by which I mean dozing through the sermon)? Employers should not make judgments about how employees use their time off; instead they should provide flexible scheduling and leave it to the employees to decide how to use their time.

This column originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine. Send questions and comments by e-mail to ethicist@nytimes.com.

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