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EEOC Releases New Guidelines on Religious Accommodations in the Workplace

On March 6, 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) issued a question and answer and fact sheet publication designed to help employers properly handle issues involving employees or potential employees who wear religious garb or adhere to certain grooming standards.

In general, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects all aspects of religious observance, practice, and belief, and defines religion very broadly to include not only traditional religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, and only subscribed to by a small number of people.  Religious practices may be based on theistic beliefs or non-theistic moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right or wrong that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.  Religious practices or observances include, for example, attending worship services, praying, wearing religious garb or symbols, adhering to dietary rules, or displaying religious objects.  Title VII’s protections extend to those who are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess or do not profess such religious beliefs.

The most common scenarios employers face concern employees who wear religious symbols or clothing, such as a cross or yarmulke, or employees who cannot work at certain times of the year because of religious tradition.  The rules that apply to these scenarios can at times be difficult to accept and follow, especially since typical defenses like “customer preference” or “corporate image” do not apply.  For example, an employer cannot rely on its claimed corporate image by enacting a grooming standard that prohibits a Muslim female employee from wearing a headscarf, absent proof of an undue hardship.  Nor could an employer prohibit a Jewish employee from wearing a yarmulke because that would supposedly send the “wrong message” to its customers.  Similarly, an employer may run afoul of EEOC rules by having a blanket rule that prohibits employees from having time off work for religious reasons, such as praying or holidays.

The EEOC’s recent publications show that it intends to more rigorously enforce and prosecute religious discrimination cases.  As a result, employers would be wise to make themselves familiar with the rules, particularly as it relates to accommodating employees with religious practices or observances.  A good place to start would be the EEOC’s above-referenced publications.  Both documents can be found on the EEOC’s website: www.eeoc.gov.

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