Federal workers can request work-schedule changes for religious observances such as Ash Wednesday, above, under new rules that require more information from both employees and agencies in applications and denials. (David Crigger/AP)

Federal agencies generally would have to approve requests from their employees to change their work schedules for religious observances under new rules that spell out what is required of both the employee and the agency.

While the government traditionally has allowed employees to make up for time missed for religious observances by working longer hours at other times, the practice was defined only in broad terms. The new, more detailed rules, issued this week, take effect May 29.

For example, while both sets of rules state that agencies must approve an employee’s request unless it would interfere with the agency’s mission, the new rules add that the agency must explain a denial in writing. Employees making a request must now further provide a “name and/or description” of the observance, when they would be absent, and when they would make up the work.

While the old rules applied only where the employee’s personal religious beliefs “require” that the employee be off from work for religious reasons, the new ones say that an absence from work “need not be officially mandated by a religious organization to which the employee belongs.”

Also, while the prior rules were open-ended regarding when employees could work the make-up hours, the new policy specifies that it would have to be between six months before to six months after an absence. If an equivalent amount of time isn’t worked by the deadline, the agency could dock the employee’s vacation time or certain other forms of paid leave.

The rules “serve to highlight an important flexibility that can be used to help agencies recruit and retain employees that want to attend religious observances,” the Office of Personnel Management said in a memo.

“Agency officials are not charged with determining whether an employee’s belief is the correct interpretation of a religious creed,” it added. “It is sufficient that the employee’s sincerely held personal religious beliefs cause the employee to feel an obligation that he or she should be absent from work for a religious purpose.”

The Senior Executives Association, the professional association for career members of the Senior Executive Service, praised the rules for striking a balance between employees’ religious rights and agencies’ interests in getting the work done.

“Without showing partiality toward any particular religion, this rule allows the agency to give workers paid time off for their religious observations while being considerate of taxpayers funds,” SEA executive director Jason Briefel said in an email. “The guideline establishes a reasonable time frame for making up for missed work, which should be adequate for agency leadership, employees, and agency mission.”

Similar rules first were proposed in 2005 under the George W. Bush administration and in 2013 under the Barack Obama administration “but neither could get a final rule over the finish line. President Trump has prioritized the rights of people of faith, including in his own federal workforce, and is finally getting this rule done,” an administration official said in an email.

An emailed statement from acting OPM director Margaret Weichert said, “Every administration chooses its priorities and this Administration is committed to supporting our diverse workforce and its faith needs.”

Instead of working compensatory time, the notice adds, employees may use options including taking vacation or leave without pay to make up for time for religious observances.