May 27, 2014
Since 1964, when Congress passed Title VII to prohibit religious discrimination in the workplace, employers have faced myriad situations involving the religious accommodation of employees. Recently, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published both a fact sheet and a question-and-answer guide, addressing how the federal law applies to employers’ dress codes and grooming policies that may conflict with various religious customs. For example, according to the EEOC:
The guidance clarifies that discriminatory customer preference is not a defense to a claim of discrimination. The guidance also confirms that Title VII’s reasonable accommodation requirement applies to employees for whom dress codes and grooming policies violate a sincerely held religious belief, even if “other people may engage in the same practice for secular reasons.” However, according to the EEOC, “if a dress or grooming practice is a personal preference” or based on other non-religious reasons (e.g., where an item is worn for fashion), “it does not come under Title VII's religion protections.” For example:
Employers must grant a reasonable accommodation to employees who wish to observe religious customs or traditions unless such accommodation would pose an undue hardship on the employer. An “undue hardship” is evaluated on a much lower standard than the similar concept under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). In the religious discrimination context, a potential accommodation would constitute an undue hardship if an employer can show that the cost or burden of complying is “more than de minimus.” For example:
To minimize the risk of discriminating against applicants and employees, employers should train managers to rely on specific experience, qualifications and other objective, non-discriminatory factors when making employment decisions. This training should also make clear that customer preference regarding religious beliefs and practices is not a lawful basis for employment decisions, and should include instruction on how not to engage in stereotyping about work qualifications or availability based on religious dress and grooming practices.
To view a copy of the EEOC fact sheet, click here.
To view a copy of the EEOC question-and-answer guide, click here.
For questions about the EEOC guidance or other issues related to religious discrimination and accommodations, please contact the authors or any other member of the firm’s labor and employment group.