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‘You Won’t Work Sundays?!’ EEOC Offers Guidance on Religious Accommodations

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employee Benefits Program,Firing,Hiring,Human Resources

The EEOC recently released guidance to help employers avoid religious discrimination charges. Distilled from the law, regulations and court decisions, the guidance offers both a list of frequently asked questions about religious discrimination and accommodation and a list of best practices.

The EEOC guidance defines what religion is under Title VII. The definition is pretty broad, including everything from mainstream religions down to small sects.

In fact, the EEOC specifically states that the size of the group the person belongs to is irrelevant to their rights to be free of discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The same is true of workers who do not adhere to any religion.

The guidance does draw the line between religious beliefs that are “sincerely held” (typically concerning “ultimate ideas” about “life, purpose, and death”) and social, political or economic philosophies. Title VII does not protect the latter.

Title VII prohibits employers from treating workers differently based on their religion. Employers may not favor one religious group over another—or non-religious employees over religious ones—when it comes to hiring, promotion, firing or any employee benefit.

Preventing harassment

Employees of all faiths or no faith are entitled to a harassment-free workplace. Employers must train supervisors not to discriminate or harass based on religion. Supervisors must also receive training to recognize harassment when it occurs and stop it.

Like sexual harassment, employers should provide avenues for employees to complain about religious harassment. Employees should be able to report harassment to their supervisor. However, if the supervisor is the harasser, employers must provide another point of contact for employees to report the harassment.

Religious accommodation

The guidance also makes it clear that employees must make the first move to work toward an accommodation for time off to practice their religions. Since Title VII bars employers from asking about an applicant’s or employee’s religion, the employee must inform the employer if he or she needs a religious accommodation.

The guidance clarifies that any accommodation that violates a collective bargaining agreement or bona fide seniority system constitutes an undue hardship for the employer. But employers must search for other arrangements that could accommodate a worker’s religious need without violating a union contract or seniority system.

An accommodation becomes an “undue hardship” when it would cause more than a minimal cost to the employer’s operation. Employers may cite both financial and nonfinancial costs when making this argument. They do not have to endure workplace disruption or infringe on other workers’ job rights or benefits.

The guidance encourages employers to let employees make their own accommodation arrangements. For example, trading shifts to allow a worker to attend a worship service or take religious holidays off is fine. As long as such arrangements are voluntary, they do not violate the law.

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