The EEOC Provides New Guidance on Religious Discrimination in the Workplace
November 10, 2008
by Chris M. Heffelbower and Jay Reding*
In July, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a new section to its Compliance Manual concerning religious discrimination in the workplace. This new section, identified as “Section 12” of the Compliance Manual, provides insight into the EEOC’s position on the law and provides guidance to employers regarding best practices for avoiding liability for religious discrimination claims. Section 12 of the Compliance Manual covers a wide-wage of topics, including the definition of “religion,” what constitutes “religious harassment,” and the circumstances under which an employer must accommodate the religious practices and beliefs of its employees.
A significant portion of Section 12 covers the employer’s obligation to reasonably accommodate the religious practices and beliefs of its employees. This area of Title VII is frequently litigated and highlights the growing religious diversity in the workplace. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for the sincerely held religious beliefs of employees so long as those accommodations do not create an “undue hardship” on the employer. An employer does not need to accommodate an employee’s religious belief if such accommodation results in a “de minimis” burden to the employer.
The initial burden falls on the employees to inform their employers that they are seeking accommodation for a religious belief. Communication between employer and employee is key, and the employer has the right to inquire about the specifics of the accommodation being requested, as well as the sincerity of the religious belief. The EEOC has taken a liberal interpretation of what constitutes a sincerely held religious belief, and employers should not be quick to dismiss requests for religious accommodation, even where the belief may be unusual or unfamiliar to the employer.
Once the request for accommodation has been made, the employer should determine whether the request would impose more than a de minimis cost. Administrative costs are generally insufficient to rise to the level of undue hardship. “Undue hardship” may be found where the requested accommodation diminished efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, or causes co-workers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.
Examples of accommodations may include allowing for flexible scheduling to accommodate religious observances, voluntary substitutions or swaps of shifts and assignments, lateral transfers or permanent changes in job assignments, or modifications in workplace practices, procedures, or policies. Frequently, cases revolve around issues such as accommodating prayer times for employees and modifications of employee dress and appearance standards to accommodate religious expressions. However, an employer is not required to provide an employee’s preferred accommodation if there is more than one effective alternative to choose from.
As with many workplace issues, communication is critical. Employers should have clear procedures for making religious accommodation requests. With an increasingly multicultural workforce, understanding the law will become increasingly important to prevent EEOC complaints or potential Title VII liability.
*Mr. Reding is a law clerk at Larkin Hoffman law firm.