The issue of religious background has generated substantial discussion during the current election cycle. Recently, the federal government highlighted the issue of religious discrimination and accommodation in the workplace.
On July 22, 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) announced the release of a one-page fact sheet specifically designed to educate young workers of their rights and responsibilities under the federal employment anti-discrimination laws prohibiting religious discrimination. The fact sheet stresses that employers may not discriminate against an employee on the basis of religion, and notes that employees have a right to ask that certain workplace accommodations be made to respect their religious preferences. Also outlined by the sheet are various examples of proper and improper employment practices under federal law. The fact sheet encourages employees to report suspected religious-based discrimination.
In addition, the EEOC announced in its press release that it will alter its collection of demographic data from individuals who file religious discrimination charges with the agency. The asserted reasoning for these changes is that it will allow the EEOC to obtain more precise data about the religion of the individual alleging discrimination so that the agency, as well as the public, can respond to discriminatory trends more effectively. This announcement goes hand in hand with the EEOC’s recent effort to improve coordination with the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which enforces the prohibition of religious discrimination for employment by federal contractors and subcontractors.
In addition to the EEOC’s recent efforts to highlight religious discrimination, the White House and the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) released in July a report titled Combating Religious Discrimination Today. The 40-page report highlights, among others topics, America’s history of religious pluralism and diversity, as well as asserted challenges the country faces today. In response to these challenges, the DOJ’s Civil Rights division, in partnership with the U.S. Attorneys and other federal agencies, hosted seven community roundtables across the country that focused on protecting citizens and religious establishments from faith-based hate crimes. The report also discusses a number of employment-related challenges, including the need for employers to be aware of their obligation to provide reasonable religious accommodations in the workplace.
Because religious discrimination remains a prevalent issue in the workplace, the EEOC has created informational materials to educate the public about religious discrimination, including Questions and Answers: Religious Discrimination in the Workplace and Best Practices for Eradicating Religious Discrimination in the Workplace. Additionally, employees and employers can benefit from recent EEOC documents focused on discrimination against people who are, or are perceived to be, Muslim or Middle Eastern, and an accompanying background summary on the topic.
Given the diversity of most workplaces and the heightened focus by the federal government on preventing religious discrimination, employers should be particularly sensitive to the potential risks of religious discrimination and harassment claims, as well as its obligations to accommodate reasonable religious-based requests for workplace changes.
This risk is particularly high for retailers given its typically diverse workplaces and customers. Employers facing difficult requests for religious accommodation should consult legal counsel before acting.