EEOC Posts New Religious Discrimination Guidance
On March 6, 2014, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) published two new technical assistance guides concerning workplace rights and responsibilities regarding religious dress and grooming under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The first document, a one-page “Fact Sheet on Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities,” provides basic information about how federal employment discrimination law applies to religious dress and grooming practices. The second, lengthier document, “Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities,” answers questions about how federal employment discrimination law applies to religious dress and grooming practices, and what steps employers can take to meet their legal responsibilities.
Both publications reiterate standards for workplace religious accommodations that are fairly well-settled under current precedent. Title VII prohibits disparate treatment based on religious belief or practice, or lack thereof, and workplace harassment based on religion. Title VII requires an employer, once on notice that a religious accommodation is needed for sincerely held religious beliefs or practices, to make an exception to dress and grooming requirements or preferences, unless doing so would pose an undue burden for the employer. Employers should make case-by-case determinations regarding any requested religious exceptions or accommodations.
The EEOC’s “Rights and Responsibilities” publication, however, also offers guidance on a number of specific circumstances. Highlights from the EEOC’s “Rights and Responsibilities” publication include the following directives:
- Title VII’s religious accommodation standards apply to dress and/or grooming practices that are religious for an applicant or employee, even if other employees engage in the same practice for non-religious reasons.
- If an employer takes an action based on the discriminatory religious preferences of others, including customers, clients, or coworkers, the employer is unlawfully discriminating employment based on religion. Customer preference is not a defense to a claim of discrimination.
- When an exception is made as a religious accommodation, the employer may nevertheless retain its usual dress and grooming expectations for other employees, even if they want an exception for secular reasons. Coworkers’ disgruntlement or jealousy about the religious accommodation is not considered undue hardship, nor is customer preference.
- Assigning applicants or employees to a non-customer contact position because of actual or feared customer preference violates Title VII’s prohibition on limiting, segregating, or classifying employees based on religion.
- An employer’s reliance on “image” or marketing strategy to deny a requested religious accommodation may amount to relying on customer preference in violation of Title VII, or otherwise be insufficient to demonstrate that making an exception would cause undue hardship on the operation of the business.
- Requiring an employee to cover his or her religious garb, marking, or article of faith is not a reasonable accommodation if such covering would violate the employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs.
- An employer may bar an employee’s religious dress or grooming practice based on workplace safety, security, or health concerns, but only if the practice actually poses an undue hardship on the operation of the business. While safety, security, or health may justify denying an accommodation in a given situation, the employer may do so only if the accommodation would actually pose an undue hardship.
- Religious harassment under Title VII may occur when an employee is required or coerced to abandon, alter, or adopt a religious practice as a condition of employment.
Both the “Fact Sheet” and the “Rights and Responsibilities” publication are helpful reminders for employers who may field requests for religious accommodation. You can find the “Fact Sheet” at http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/fs_religious_garb_grooming.cfm and the “Rights and Responsibilities” at http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/qa_religious_garb_grooming.cfm.