EEOC Releases Revised Religious Discrimination Manual

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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued updated guidance to its Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination, which addresses religious discrimination laws in the workplace. The EEOC last updated this guidance in 2008.

The updated Manual includes significant clarifications on how the EEOC defines “religion” under Title VII, what kinds of organizations qualify for the religious organization exemption, and when reasonable accommodations must be made by employers for religious reasons.

Definition of “religion”.

The Manual makes it clear that “religion” is very broadly defined for purposes of Title VII:

Title VII defines “religion” to include “all aspects of religious observance and practice as well as belief,” not just practices that are mandated or prohibited by a tenet of the individual’s faith…The Supreme Court has made it clear that it is not a court’s role to determine the reasonableness of an individual’s religious beliefs, and that “religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.” An employee’s belief, observance, or practice can be “religious” under Title VII even if the employee is affiliated with a religious group that does not espouse or recognize that individual’s belief, observance, or practice, or if few – or no – other people adhere to it.

Organizations that qualify for the religious organization exemption.

The new EEOC guidance makes it clear that no single factor is dispositive when assessing whether an organization qualifies for the exemption, including whether the organization is for-profit, which had been an exclusionary factor prior to the issuance of the new guidance. The Manual instructs that to determine if an organization qualifies for a religious exemption, courts have considered “the religious and secular characteristics” of the entities including the following characteristics:

(1) whether the entity operates for a profit; (2) whether it produces a secular product; (3) whether the entity’s articles of incorporation or other pertinent documents state a religious purpose; (4) whether it is owned, affiliated with or financially supported by a formally religious entity such as a church or synagogue; (5) whether a formally religious entity participates in the management, for instance by having representatives on the board of trustees; (6) whether the entity holds itself out to the public as secular or sectarian; (7) whether the entity regularly includes prayer or other forms of worship in its activities; (8) whether it includes religious instruction in its curriculum, to the extent it is an educational institution; and (9) whether its membership is made up of coreligionists.

Based on these considerations, “courts have found that Title VII’s religious organization exemption applies not only to churches and other houses of worship, but also to religious schools, hospitals, and charities.”

Reasonable accommodation for religious reasons.

Under Title VII, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs as long as the accommodation does not result in an undue hardship for the employer. The new guidance notes that reasonable accommodations may include modification of certain workplace policies or procedures, flexible scheduling, or lateral changes in position.

The Manual notes that courts have found undue hardship “where the accommodation diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, or causes coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.” Undue hardship as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court is an accommodation that imposes “more than a de minimis cost” on the employer.

The revised manual states that when assessing hardship, factors to be considered include the “identifiable cost in relation to the size and operating costs of the employer and the number of individuals who will in fact need a particular accommodation.”

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