The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a new Compliance Manual Section regarding workplace discrimination on the basis of religion on July 22, 2008.
The new section defines “religion,” religious discrimination and harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It identifies discriminatory practices in the recruiting and hiring process, the terms and conditions of employment, and with respect to discipline and termination. The EEOC also describes its policies regarding the employer’s requirement to accommodate religious beliefs and practices.
The section explains how to apply the law to the workplace with numerous factual illustrations. For example, in explaining that accommodation does not necessarily mean acceding to the employee’s preference, the section states: “Tina, a newly hired part-time store cashier whose sincerely held religious belief is that she should refrain from work on Sunday as part of her Sabbath observance, asked her supervisor never to schedule her to work on Sundays. Tina specifically asked to be scheduled to work Saturdays instead. In response, her employer offered to allow her to work on Thursday, which she found inconvenient because she takes a college class on that day. Even if Tina preferred a different schedule, the employer is not required to grant Tina’s preferred accommodation.”
The question-and-answer sheet includes answers to common questions, such as: “Does an employer have to grant every request for accommodation of a religious belief or practice?” “What if co-workers complain about an employee being granted an accommodation?” “What are common methods of religious accommodation in the workplace?”
The best practices booklet includes a number of compliance suggestions. Some of the suggestions are generic and obvious. For example: “Employers can reduce the risk of discriminatory employment decisions by establishing written objective criteria for evaluating candidates for hire or promotion and applying those criteria consistently to all candidates.” Other suggestions are more practical and helpful. For example: “Employers should consider adopting flexible leave and scheduling policies and procedures that will often allow employees to meet their religious and other personal needs. Such policies can reduce individual requests for exceptions. For example, some employers have policies allowing alternative work schedules and/or a certain number of ‘floating’ holidays for each employee. While such policies may not cover every eventuality and some individual accommodations may still be needed, the number of such individual accommodations may be substantially reduced.”
According to the EEOC’s press release, “the EEOC issued this section in response to an increase in charges of religious discrimination, increased religious diversity in the United States, and requests for guidance from stakeholders and agency personnel investigating and litigating claims of religious discrimination.”
The EEOC reports that religious discrimination charge filings with the EEOC nationwide have risen substantially over the past 15 years, doubling from 1,388 in Fiscal Year 1992 to a record level of 2,880 in FY 2007.