Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating in hiring, firing or other terms of employment against employees and applicants based on many factors, including their religion.
The law says employers must “reasonably accommodate” employees’ “sincerely held” religious practices unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer. In most cases, such accommodations involve giving employees time off to attend religious service. The nature and extent of these accommodations has now been honed through 40 years of federal court decisions.
In addition, employers can’t treat followers of one religion differently than other employees. You must allow employees to engage in religious expression, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on your organization. And you must prevent religious harassment of your workers.
The EEOC recently published guidance to help employers deal with employees’ religion-based questions regarding time off, free speech, religious clothing and more.
The guidelines, plus accompanying Q&A fact sheet and list of best practices, condense various regulations and court decisions relating to Title VII religious discrimination law. Find links at www.eeoc.gov/press/7-22-08.html.
How to comply
What’s a ‘religion’? The guidance document 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 his or her right to be free of discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The same is true of workers who don’t adhere to any religion.
The guidance does draw the line between religious beliefs that are “sincerely held” (those that concern “ultimate ideas” about “life, purpose, and death”) versus those that concern social, political or economic philosophies. Title VII does not protect the latter.
Preventing religious harassment. The EEOC makes it clear that employees of all faiths—or no faiths, such as atheists—are entitled to a harassment-free workplace.
As part of your anti-harassment training, remind supervisors not to discriminate or harass based on religion. Teach them to recognize harassment when it occurs and stop it. Employers are always held responsible when a supervisor harasses an employee, but may limit damages if they address it promptly.
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 one harassing, employers must provide another point of contact.
Religious accommodations. The guidance also makes it clear that employees must make the first move to request a religious accommodation. Title VII bars employers from asking about an applicant’s or employee’s religion, so the employee must inform the employer if he or she needs a religious accommodation.
Key point: You don’t have to grant every accommodation request. But if you don’t, you must show that either the accommodation had nothing to do with the employee’s “sincerely held” belief or that providing the accommodation would place an undue hardship on the employer.
Any accommodation that violates a collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) or bona fide seniority system is an undue hardship. But employers must search for other arrangements that could accommodate the worker’s religious need without violating the CBA 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.
The guidance notes that religious accommodations sometimes don’t sit well with co-workers. But just because a co-worker complains, that’s not enough to claim the accommodation is an undue hardship. But if the complaint points to valid infringements on the co-worker’s job rights or disruption of the co-worker’s work, the employer could use all of these facts to support the undue-hardship argument.
The guidance encourages employers to let workers make arrangements such as trading shifts to allow employees to attend religious services or take religious holidays off. As long as such arrangements are voluntary, they don’t violate the law.
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