Employers should be aware of the recent guidance on federal protections for religious discrimination issued as a result of the interagency effort between the Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Specifically, the EEOC released on 7/22/2016 its religious discrimination guidance, which focuses on younger employees and explaining how the laws protect the freedom of religious practice within the workplace of workers of all ages.
On this point, federal and state governments protect against religious discrimination. The federal anti-religious discrimination statute is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (federal law). And Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act safeguards an individual’s freedom to exercise sincerely held religious practices in the workplace by prohibiting discrimination against an employee on the basis of religion. For more information on religious discrimination, see Religion in the Workplace: Avoiding Religious Discrimination Claims.
The EEOC’s Guidance: Ensuring Workers of All Ages Know Their Religious Rights
The EEOC’s release emphasizes that individuals should not have to choose between their job and their deeply held religious beliefs and practices. This is because Title VII protects practices observed by traditional religions as well as newer, less familiar religions. The EEOC’s guidance provides many examples of religious accommodations that may be requested by employees and both appropriate and inappropriate employer responses. A few such examples include:
- Wearing of religious garb (i.e. hijab or bindi) must not be discriminated against by the employer.
- A change in shift scheduling to account for religious practices and an exemption from certain work-related practices, so long as they would pose little to no burden on the company, must also be considered by the employer.
In addition to these and other examples of religious discrimination, the EEOC’s release provides information – conveniently highlighted in green – about filing a discrimination charge (not subtle whatsoever).
Proactive Steps For Employers and Employees
As discussed in the release, the interagency effort determined that religious discrimination continues to be an issue in the workplace. In support, the EEOC cited in its statement that it received 3,502 charges alleging discrimination on the basis of religion in the fiscal year 2015 alone.
For employers, the EEOC’s release should signal that the agency intends to continue to focus on religious discrimination issues. This also means companies must be on alert for employees’ religious accommodation requests and the potential for bias to arise when handling these requests. Also, in response to an employee’s request for a religious accommodation, companies must be prepared to intelligently determine whether the requests would pose an undue burden on the employer. Moreover, the employer should be ready to document the undue burden to be able to successfully defend against a potential claim for religious discrimination. For more information on religious discrimination, see Religion in the Workplace: Avoiding Religious Discrimination Claims.
For employees, they need to understand their obligations to discuss a religious accommodation with their supervisors. A great explanation of this obligation is provided by an equally great employment attorney, Robin Shea who explains:
It’s not enough for an employee to tell the employer, “I need Sundays off.” An employee who needs a religious accommodation must communicate to the employer (1) that he or she needs the accommodation, and (2) that the need results from a conflict between a work requirement and the employee’s religious beliefs. “I need Sundays off because I believe it’s a sin to work on Sunday” should do the trick.
See Ms. Shea’s article, Hallelujah! 5 Things About Religion In The Workplace That You May Not Have Known.
For further information regarding religious discrimination, accommodating employees’ religious beliefs, and how to respond proactively to an employee’s religious accommodation request, contact employment attorney Jason Shinn.