South Bend / Mishawaka, IN – The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) published two (2) new technical assistance publications addressing workplace rights and responsibilities with respect to religious garb and grooming under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). This new guidance comes in the wake of the EEOC seeing a noticeable increase in the number of employee charges being filed which alleged religious discrimination in the workplace. The EEOC received 3,721 charges from employees alleging religious discrimination in fiscal year 2013, compared to the 1,709 charges it received in fiscal year 1997.
The new guidance, which can be accessed on the EEOC’s website (www.eeoc.gov) includes a question and answer guide entitled, “Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities”, along with an accompanying fact sheet. The new guidance reminds both employers and employees alike of their rights and responsibilities under Title VII, which prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Title VII, of course, also prohibits retaliation against persons who complain of discrimination or participate in an investigation conducted by the EEOC.
Private employers covered by Title VII (e.g., those who have employed fifteen (15) or more employees for at least twenty (20) calendar weeks in the current or previous year) are reminded by the newly-issued guidance that they must make exceptions to their usual rules or preferences to permit applicants and employees to follow religiously-mandated dress and grooming practices unless it would pose an undue hardship to the operation of an employer’s business. The new guidance also reaffirms the fact that the EEOC will enforce Title VII across all religious groups. Indeed, Title VII protects all aspects of religious observance, practice, and belief, and further defines religion very broadly to include not only traditional, organized religions but also religious beliefs which are new, which may seem uncommon or unreasonable to others, or those not part of a formal church or recognized denomination. The EEOC’s new guidance reminds employers that Title VII’s reach even goes so far as protecting those who feel they are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs at all.
Lastly, the EEOC’s new guidance cautions employers to be careful when questioning whether an employee’s asserted religious practice or belief is sincerely held. Importantly, Title VII’s religious accommodation requirement only applies to religious beliefs that are “sincerely held”. However, as the new guidance indicates, that an employee’s religious practice may deviate from commonly-followed tenets of the religion does not automatically mean that his or her religious observance would not be considered “sincerely held” by the EEOC. In addition, the EEOC urges employers to consider that an employee’s religious beliefs – or degree of adherence – may change over time, yet may still be deemed “sincerely held” by the EEOC. These points notwithstanding, the EEOC still recognizes that if an employer has a legitimate reason for questioning the sincerity, or even the religious nature, of a particular belief or practice for which accommodation has been requested, the employer may request an applicant or employee for information that is reasonably necessary to evaluate the accommodation request.
The EEOC’s new guidance is a clear reminder that employers should be mindful of Title VII’s prohibitions against religious discrimination and retaliation when presented with a request for religious accommodation from an applicant or employee. Employers with questions concerning the scope of Title VII’s prohibitions and requirements should always consult with experienced legal counsel. The content of this article is for information purposes only, and neither contains nor should be considered legal advice.
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