On July 22, 2008, the EEOC added a new section to its compliance manual addressing religious discrimination in the workplace to guide agency personnel, employers, union and other entities covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Noting that U.S. workplaces have become more religiously diverse and that religious discrimination charges have increased from 1,388 in 1992 to 2,880 in 2007, the EEOC revised its compliance manual to consolidate “into one comprehensive document” religious discrimination case law and the Commission’s views regarding religious discrimination. The EEOC’s new manual section is accompanied by a Question and Answer document and a second document called Best Practices for Eradicating Religious Discrimination. Following are some highlights:

  • The EEOC notes that the term “religion” under Tile VII is to be defined very broadly and includes not only traditional, organized religions (e.g., Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism), but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others. Title VII’s protections extend to employees who are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs.
  • The prohibition against religious discrimination also applies to disparate treatment of religious expression in the workplace. For example, if an employer allows an employee to display a Bible on her desk, the employer may not prohibit another employee from having a Quran on his desk because co-workers “will think you are making a political statement.”
  • Title VII requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship. An undue hardship defense requires a showing that the proposed accommodation in a particular case poses a “more than de minimus” cost or burden. Factors relevant to the “undue hardship” analysis may include the type of workplace, the nature of the employee’s duties, the identifiable cost of the accommodation in relation to the size and operating costs of the employer and the number of employees who will in fact need a particular accommodation. Costs to be considered include not only direct monetary costs but also the burden on the conduct of the employer’s business.
  • An employer may use a variety of methods to provide reasonable accommodation to its employees. These methods may include:
    • Changing an employee’s work schedule or allowing the employee to swap shifts with a co-worker
    • Changing an employee’s job tasks
    • Making an exception to dress and grooming rules
    • Allowing the employee to use the work facility for a religious observance
    • Accommodations relating to the payment of union dues
    • Accommodating prayer, proselytizing and other forms of religious expression
  • Some private employers choose to express their own religious beliefs or practices in the workplace, and they are entitled to do so. But if an employer holds religious services or programs or includes prayer in business meetings, Title VII requires the employer to accommodate an employee who asks to be excused for religious reasons, absent a showing of undue hardship. Similarly, an employer is required to excuse an employee from compulsory personal or professional development training that conflicts with the employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship.

The EEOC’s new compliance manual section underscores the seriousness and vigor with which the EEOC and state administrative agencies will investigate claims of religious discrimination and should serve as a reminder to all employers that issues of religion in the workplace must be handled in a diligent and delicate manner. If faced with an employee request for a religious accommodation, employers are encouraged to contact their legal counsel for assistance with avoiding the pitfalls of Title VII and applicable state and local anti-discrimination laws.