EEOC Updates Guidance on Religious Discrimination

By Douglas Lipsky

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently released revisions to its guidance on religious discrimination in the workplace (Guidance). In particular, the revised Guidance reiterates that employers must make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs in accordance with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). 

Despite the prohibitions against religious discrimination in the workplace under federal, state and local law, workers continue to be treated unfairly because of their sincerely held beliefs. If you believe you have been subjected to religious discrimination on the job, talk to an employment lawyer. In the meantime, this is a brief look at religious discrimination in the workplace and what you can do about it.

Employers Must Make Room for Religion

The EEOC’s updated Guidance is based significantly on U.S. Supreme Court rulings issued since the agency’s last update in 2008 which expanded protections for religious expression in the workplace. It is worth noting that the update is intended to be guidance, it is not an EEOC regulation, nor does it have the force of law. Instead, the Guidance clarifies the employment watchdog’s priorities and summarizes existing law as interpreted by the courts and the EEOC. 

Religious Accommodations v. Undue Hardship

Under Title VII, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs, provided that the accommodation does not pose an undue hardship on the employer. 

The EEOC broadly defines religion as religious beliefs, practices, or observances that are sincerely held, a definition that encompasses belief systems beyond organized religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Social or political philosophies and personal preferences are not religious beliefs for purposes of Title VII, however. 

In short, the Guidance reinterprets religious accommodation and undue hardship.

Reasonable Accommodation

The Guidance clarifies that an employer can accommodate an employee’s sincerely held beliefs by:

  • Flexible scheduling (e.g. permitting prayer breaks)
  • Voluntary exchanges of shifts
  • Lateral transfers to enable religious observance

Also, an employer can modify workplace practices, policies, or procedures. As an example, a pharmacist who has a religious objection to dispensing contraceptives may be allowed to signal a coworker to assist customers with those purchases. The pharmacist should not be transferred, however, because the Guidance recommends that employees be accommodated in their current position.

Undue Hardship 

The Guidance notes that courts have found undue hardship where the accommodation:

  • Reduces efficiency in other jobs
  • Infringes on other workers’ employment rights or benefits
  • Impairs workplace safety
  • Forces other workers to handle the accommodated worker’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work 

In addition, undue hardship is defined as imposing more than a de minimum cost, based on factors such as the employer’s size and operating costs and the number of employees who will require a particular accommodation. 

As an example, an employee cannot be required to wear a pin supporting LGBTQ+ rights if it conflicted with his or her religious beliefs; however, the employer could require that employee to attend mandatory workplace training about discrimination and harassment against members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Finally, the Guidance recommends that employers (1) engage in an interactive dialogue with the employee when deciding whether an accommodation would be reasonable, and (2) consider other accommodations that would allow the employee to maintain their religious beliefs. 

Why This Matters

While the EEOC’s update on religious discrimination in the workplace is intended to provide guidance to employers, it is just as important for employees to know their rights. If you believe you have been subjected to religious discrimination on the job, it takes an experienced employment lawyer to protect your rights.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.