On March 6, 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released new guidance for employers addressing an employer’s obligation under Title VII to provide reasonable religious garb and grooming accommodations to employees and applicants upon request.

The guidance reaffirms the EEOC's position that employers are required to accommodate employee and applicant requests for reasonable religious accommodations related to their garb or grooming, where the employee's religious belief is sincerely held and where granting the accommodation would not pose an undue hardship on the employer. This could include requests to wear items such as religious garments, articles or symbols, and may also include an employee's refusal to wear certain clothing, such as pants or shorts. Requests related to religious grooming may relate to, among other things, religious shaving or hair length observances.

The guidance also notes that employers may not reassign employees to another job classification or work location based on the employee's religious garb or grooming practices for the purpose of avoiding customer contact. Similarly, employers cannot refuse to hire or deny an accommodation request to an employee based upon concerns that the employee's religious garb or grooming practice may have a negative impact on the employer’s image.

The guidance provides numerous examples to illustrate that compliance often will require employers to deviate from their strictly enforced dress, grooming or uniform policies. However, the guidance recognizes that employers maintain the right to require the covering of religious attire or clothing, so long as doing so would not violate the employee’s religious beliefs. It also recognizes the employer's continued right to enforce its dress, grooming or uniform policy on all other employees who have not requested a reasonable accommodation. Employers also may impose restrictions on employee religious garb or grooming practices based on legitimate safety or health concerns.

EEOC guidance publications only reflect the EEOC's interpretation of Title VII, and courts are not required to adhere to them. Nevertheless, employers should consider the EEOC's guidance when determining appropriate religious accommodation policies and practices for their organization. The guidance can be viewed on the EEOC's Web site or here. For additional information about the EEOC's guidance or religious accommodation issues in general, please contact any member of Schiff Hardin's Labor and Employment Group.