Protections for Religious Employers in Revisions to EEOC Compliance Manual Concerning Religious Discrimination

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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has published an updated version of Section 12 of its Compliance Manual, which concerns Religious Discrimination. This document now clarifies protections for religious employers under the current state of the law. Although the EEOC Compliance Manual does not have the force of law, it explains legal requirements and agency policies on various issues, including some protections for religious organizations that employ staff members.

Expansion of the Definition of Religious Organization

Section 12 of the EEOC Compliance Manual expands the definition of a religious organization to include for-profit organizations and those that perform secular activities. However, it does not explicitly include or exclude for-profit corporations within the definition of a religious organization. This definition is essential because Title VII contains an exemption for religious organizations, which allows them to hire and employ individuals of a particular religion.

Generally, religious organizations are those whose purpose and character are primarily religious. One must look at “all the facts” to determine whether an organization meets this definition, considering factors such as:

  • Whether it is a for-profit entity
  • Whether it promotes a secular product
  • Whether the articles of incorporation or other organizational documents state a religious purpose
  • Whether the entity is owned, affiliated with, or financially supported by a formal religious entity
  • Whether a formal religious entity participates in the management of the entity
  • Whether the entity advertises itself to the public as secular or sectarian
  • Whether the entity regularly includes prayer or other forms of worship in its activities
  • Whether it provides religious instruction if it is an educational institution
  • Whether its membership is made up of coreligionists

Nonetheless, the EEOC will consider whether an organization meets the definition of a religious organization on a case-by-case basis. This section also acknowledges that courts have found that entities that perform secular activities may still qualify as religious organizations.

The Ministerial Exception to Certain Religious Discrimination Claims

The EEOC Compliance Manual explains how the ministerial exception insulates religious employers from some discrimination claims. This exception is based on the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, which safeguard the right of religious organizations to employ people who ascribe to and live out their religious beliefs. The ministerial exception applies whether the challenged employment decision was for religious reasons or not.

As a result, the First Amendment protects religious employers from discrimination claims involving selecting, supervising, and removing certain key employees. Most notably, these claims are not limited to ministers or employees who minister to others.

Not only churches and houses of worship enjoy the protections of the ministerial exception. Instead, it applies to any organization whose mission has obvious religious characteristics. In the context of these organizations, the ministerial exception applies to employees who perform vital religious duties that are at the core of the organization’s mission. This application is in line with the expanded definition of religious organization.

We Are Here to Help You with Your Legal Issues

The attorneys and staff of Church Law Center focus on providing legal assistance to nonprofits, churches, and religious organizations. As federal and state laws continue to evolve rapidly in these areas, we pride ourselves on keeping up to date with these changes as they occur. Our goal is to help you prevent legal issues before they occur. Contact our offices today at (949) 892-1221 and schedule an appointment to speak with us about your case.

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