Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) underscored its attention to religious discrimination claims by posting on its website two “technical assistance publications” on the subject. The first is a fact sheet that provides basic information about religious discrimination and includes information related to an employer’s obligation to accommodate workers’ religious observances in the workplace. The second is a “Q&A” page in which the EEOC provides scenarios to illustrate employers’ obligations, and the rights of employees and applicants under Title VII and relevant case law.
According to the EEOC, religious discrimination involves treating an individual – whether an employee or an applicant – unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs. The law also protects individuals who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs.
Religious discrimination also can involve “associational” discrimination, where someone is treated differently because that person is married to (or associated with) an individual of a particular religion or because of his or her connection with a religious organization or group.
The law forbids religious discrimination in any aspect of employment, including hiring, termination, wages, benefits, promotions, training, and any other term or condition of employment. It also is illegal to harass any employee because of his or her beliefs.
The recent EEOC postings further clarify the Commission’s view on the rights and obligations related to Title VII’s protection of individuals from religious discrimination. The fact sheet includes several statements of which employers should be aware.
First, it makes the general statement that in most instances, “employers covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must make exceptions to their usual rules or preferences to permit applicants and employees to follow religious dress and grooming practices.” This statement should interest employers who have dress or grooming codes that may conflict with the wearing of religious garments or articles.
The second statement of note, included in bold type in the posting, says: “Customer preference is not a defense to a claim of discrimination.” An individual cannot be excluded from an employment position because of the reaction – or anticipated reaction – of customers or co-workers, nor can such employee be “segregated,” by assigning the employee to a non-customer contact position, because of actual or anticipated customer preference.
The EEOC’s Q&A page provides information in question and answer format, but with the addition of 20 various factual scenarios that spell out situations that the EEOC views as violations of Title VII. Because of the broad scope of these scenarios, employers will be able to use the page as a reference when faced with a situation involving potential religious discrimination.