The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”) recently updated the Religious Discrimination section of its Compliance Manual, detailing its policy regarding what constitutes religious discrimination under Title VII. The Religious Discrimination section is available at http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/religion.html. The section analyzes a variety of fact patterns and provides a summary of relevant case law and areas in which the EEOC’s position differs from legal precedent. The EEOC also developed a fact sheet summarizing the lengthy Compliance Manual section, which employers are advised to consult when dealing with religious accommodation and discrimination issues. The fact sheet is available at http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/qanda_religion.html.
The EEOC developed the section in response to an increase in the number of religious discrimination charges from 1,388 in 1992 to 2,880 in 2007. It is important for employers to understand that the section is intended to provide guidance and that courts are not bound by the EEOC’s views and policies. Additionally, some states will have more in-depth and/or different prohibitions than those of Title VII.
The new Compliance Manual section focuses on members of various religious groups working for secular employers and what constitutes workplace discrimination on the basis of religion. The EEOC defines religion to include religious beliefs outside a formal church or organized religion, including “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.” A belief is “religious” under Title VII if it is “religious in the person’s own scheme of things,” meaning “a sincere and meaningful belief that occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by . . . God.”
The manual also discusses what constitutes a “religious accommodation” under Title VII, requiring employers to accommodate their employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs unless the accommodation creates an “undue hardship.” The EEOC encourages employers to cooperate with employees and to have an open dialogue concerning requested accommodations. According to the manual, the employee, if necessary, must explain the religious need for the accommodation. A religious accommodation is “any adjustment to the work environment that will allow the employee to comply with his or her religious belief.” However, the accommodation must not impose upon the employer “more than a de minimis cost or burden.” The EEOC also discusses religious harassment and employer liability for encouraging or tolerating religious harassment.
As with all types of discrimination, employers should ensure that their employment manual establishes a clear and consistent policy against harassment and discrimination and includes a section on religious accommodation. Such policies should provide employees with a meaningful complaint mechanism and employers should, of course, promptly investigate all complaints.