In recent years, there has been continuous debate over the implications of Title VII for alleged cases of religious discrimination in the workplace. In some high-profile cases, employees have argued that they faced discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, which was rooted in the employers’ religious beliefs. In other cases, employers have argued that certain applications of Title VII violated their own freedom of religion. To lessen the grey area between accommodating employees’ religious beliefs (or lack thereof), infringing on employers’ religious liberties, and burdening employers with undue hardship, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has published revisions to their Compliance Manual Section on Religious Discrimination. For a summary we turn to the JD Supra article, “EEOC Issues New Guidance on Religious Discrimination and Accommodation of Religious Beliefs,” by Karl Butterer.
Butterer begins by summarizing the three main protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. First, it prohibits religious discrimination in all employment decisions, such as hiring, firing, promotions, and salary. Second, it prohibits employers from imposing religion on employees. Third, it requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to the religious beliefs and practices of employees as long as doing so does not impose undue hardship. Butterer defines a reasonable religious accommodation as “an adjustment to the working environment that allows an employee to practice his or her religion.”
While it seems that everyone would benefit from and agree with these protections, debate stems from a variety of angles and interpretations. For example, in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the Supreme Court ruled that certain employers cannot be required to cover birth control in their insurance if doing so conflicts with their own religious beliefs. In the 2020 case of Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Furthermore, in the cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel, the Supreme Court determined that teachers cannot sue religious schools for employment discrimination based on religion just as ministers cannot sue religious institutions for such discrimination. Clearly, application of Title VII continues to be a complicated matter.
Now for the 2021 EEOC Guidance…
Butterer explains that “While the Compliance Manual does not have the force of law, it does establish how the EEOC analyzes claims of religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), and provides useful guidance to employers.” When it comes to the reasonable accommodation of an employee’s observance of religious holidays and other obligations, it is stated that employers should allow for flexible scheduling, voluntary shift swaps, or lateral transfers. It is also advised that employers accommodate an employee’s religious objection to a particular practice or responsibility if doing so does not cause undue hardship. For example, they suggest that if a pharmacist objects to dispensing contraceptives, a coworker can handle such prescriptions.
In addition to confirming the validity of certain accommodations, the EEOC guidance also addresses legitimate concerns about undue hardship. For example, they highlight the fact that proselytizing in the workplace has the potential to pose undue hardship if it disrupts normal business operations or escalates to the level of harassment of individuals with different beliefs. When it comes to determining whether accommodations pose undue hardship, Butterer quotes the EEOC’s recommendation to consider 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.’”
To summarize, in addition to prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of religion, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also prohibits employers from imposing religion on employees and demands reasonable accommodations for the religious beliefs and practices of employees. Everyone, including employers, has the right to their religious beliefs and practices or lack thereof. When an employee requires religious accommodations, their requests should be respected and honored to the greatest extent possible without posing undue hardship. Along the same lines, employees must respect the religious liberties of their coworkers and employers as long as they do not impose on their own rights. In summary, an ethical workplace respects religious diversity.
Learn more about religious accommodation here.