Florida mirrors America’s growing diversity in many ways. Today, coworkers wear burqas and yarmulkes, and some employees request prayer breaks.
Religious diversity is a reason for celebration, but it also presents workplace challenges. Religious discrimination claims filed with the EEOC more than doubled in the past year.
The courts have not offered clear guidance to employers when dealing with religious issues. And Congress will likely consider legislation again this year that would require employers to make ADA-style reasonable accommodations for employees’ religious practices.
Most employers understand the basics: Federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act) says it’s illegal to discriminate based on a person’s religion in hiring, firing, promotion, pay, benefits and other work conditions. The law covers employers of 15 or more people.
Guidelines for compliance
To comply with Title VII, follow these guidelines:
- Beware of less-obvious bias. For example, you can’t refuse to assign favorable shifts to certain employees because you fear their religious needs will cause absence problems.
- Don’t push any one religion. Employers can’t force employees to participate in religious activities as a condition of employment. Conversely, they can’t punish employees for participating in religious activities.
- Don’t limit religious expression. Permit employees to engage in religious expression unless it imposes undue hardship on your organization.
- Prevent harassment. You must take steps to prevent religious harassment of employees and stop it when you learn it has occurred.
- Accommodate “sincere” beliefs. Employers must accommodate employees’ “sincerely held” religious beliefs or practices unless they create an undue hardship.
Accommodation examples: changing an employee’s schedule to allow him or her to attend a religious service; allowing voluntary schedule swaps with co-workers; and modifying such workplace rules as dress or grooming requirements. The EEOC has sued United Parcel Service for refusing to hire a Rastafarian because of his beard, which he wore for religious reasons.
While the law says you must accommodate sincerely held beliefs, the EEOC doesn’t require employees to actually be card-carrying members of a religion to hold sincere beliefs of that religion (and earn protection under the law). So don’t try to analyze whether an employee’s belief is sincere or not; when in doubt, accommodate.
For more advice on complying with religious-accommodation law, check out these sites:
- EEOC: www.eeoc.gov/types/religion.html
- Justice Department: www.usdoj.gov/crt/religdisc/religdisc.html
- Employment Law Information Network: www.elinfonet.com/fedindex/18
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