When most employers hear the term “reasonable accommodation,” their thoughts immediately turn to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But the ADA is not the only federal statute that requires employers to accommodate employees. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to offer employees reasonable accommodation for “sincerely held religious beliefs,” unless accommodation would cause an undue hardship for the employer.

In April of this year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a Guidance explaining its position on the scope of the religious accommodation obligation as applied to religious dress and grooming practices. Although this Guidance does not have the force of law and is not binding on courts, it is instructive in terms of how the EEOC views charges of discrimination brought in this area. The EEOC’s position on this issue is particularly relevant given that the number of EEOC charges alleging religious discrimination has more than doubled in the past 15 years.

Several of the important points raised in the EEOC’s “Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities” Guidance are discussed below.

“Religion” Is Defined Very Broadly

According to the EEOC, for Title VII purposes the term “religion” is expansively defined to include not only traditional organized religions 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 may seem illogical or unreasonable to others.” In an example provided in the Guidance, the EEOC stated that a “religion” is entitled to Title VII protection even if less than 10 people belong to such a religion. Also, the EEOC stated that an employee’s belief or practice can be “religious” and entitled to protection even if it is not followed by others in the same religion.

The Sincerity of a Religious Belief Is Largely Determined by the Employee

Title VII protects only those religious beliefs that are sincerely held. However, the EEOC stated in its Guidance that an individual’s religious beliefs—and degree of adherence to those beliefs—can change over time and still be sincere. Moreover, an employee can adhere to religious practices at only certain times of the year (e.g., Lent or Ramadan) without affecting the sincerity of the employee’s religious beliefs. In short, unless an employer has evidence that an employee acts in direct contradiction to his or her stated religious beliefs and practices, it will be difficult for an employer to argue that an employee’s religious beliefs are not sincerely held.

Customer Preference Cannot Excuse a Failure to Accommodate

Courts have consistently found that customer preference is insufficient to justify any kind of employment discrimination. In its Guidance, the EEOC provided an example of a restaurant that can prove it lost specific customers because those customers objected to an employee whom they believed to be Muslim, based on a turban he wore. The EEOC stated that discharging the employee because of the lost business would constitute unlawful religious discrimination. The EEOC also stated that moving an employee wearing religious garb to a different position, with less interaction with the public, would also constitute unlawful discrimination.

Favorable Treatment of Certain Employees May Be Required

Employers are conditioned to believe that treating employees equally will provide a defense to claims of discrimination. Where reasonable accommodation is concerned, however, employers may have an obligation to treat certain employees more favorably than others. The EEOC’s Guidance cites as an example an employer that has a policy requiring employees to be clean-shaven. If an employee objects to such a policy on religious grounds, the employer will be required to excuse the employee from compliance with the policy, unless the employer can establish that it would be an undue hardship to allow the employee to deviate from the policy. The EEOC stated that the employer could continue to require other employees to comply with the policy, despite making an exception for one employee on religious grounds.

The Employee Is Not Entitled to Select His or Her Accommodation

As is the case with accommodation under the ADA, the EEOC made clear that an employee requesting religious accommodation is not necessarily entitled to the specific accommodation he or she seeks, if there is another accommodation that would address the employee’s religious beliefs and be more acceptable to the employer. The example given in the Guidance is an employee who works in a sterile environment for a surgical equipment manufacturer. To keep its environment sterile, the employer has a policy prohibiting facial hair and requiring all employees to wear a face mask. When the employee objects on religious grounds, the employer offers to allow the employee to wear two face masks rather than shave his beard. The EEOC stated that this would be a reasonable accommodation even if the employee objects to having to wear two masks.

The lesson for employers is to treat requests for accommodation of religious beliefs and practices as you would treat requests for accommodation under the ADA. Engage in an interactive process with the employee, determining what the pertinent religious belief or practice is and what the employee is requesting, then consider whether you can provide the requested accommodation or an alternative accommodation without creating an undue hardship. Because religious accommodation is not as common as disability accommodation, it may behoove employers to educate frontline supervisors on religious accommodation so supervisors can spot issues and bring them to the attention of the appropriate managers or Human Resources personnel.