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Mar 2014
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March 12, 2014

EEOC Issues New Guidance for Religious Accommodations


Like the stock market, there are occasional ups and downs in the number of religious discrimination claims filed annually with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but the overall annual trend is steadily increasing nationwide. 

Michigan is no exception.  In Fiscal Year 2013, the EEOC received 94 charges of religious discrimination in Michigan, accounting for 2.5 percent of the national total. That number was up from 74 in FY 2012, and 92 in FY 2011.

Responding to the increase in religious discrimination claims, the EEOC on March 6 issued two new informal guidance pieces about religious attire and grooming practices in the workplace. Consisting of a question and answer guide and an accompanying fact sheet, the new EEOC materials remind employers that businesses with more than 15 employees must accommodate sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs or practices, especially as they relate to:
 
  • Personal attire (e.g., a Muslim hijab (headscarf), a Sikh turban, or a Christian cross);
  • Observance of religious prohibitions (e.g., a Pentecostal Christian woman’s practice of not wearing pants or short skirts); and
  • Grooming practices (e.g., Sikh uncut hair or beard, Rastafarian dreadlocks, or Jewish sidelocks). 
 
Of particular note to employers are the following observations made or reiterated by the EEOC in these new guidance materials:
 
  • Sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs and practices are not limited to traditions followed by formal religious denominations, and need not be followed by anyone other than simply the employee who asserts them.
  • Employee religious beliefs and degrees of adherence may change over time, and employers must be vigilant in accommodating these changes.
  • In the EEOC’s view, whether a practice or belief is “religious” or “sincere” typically is not disputed.
  • Accommodations may be denied only for undue hardship, defined as a “more than de minimus” cost or burden on the operation of the employer’s business.  (Other EEOC publications clarify that an accommodation may cause undue hardship if it is costly, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work. Go to http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/religion.cfm for more details). 
  • Customer preference, co-worker jealousy or disgruntlement, and corporate image or marketing strategy do not constitute undue hardship, and are insufficient reasons to deny religious accommodations related to garb or grooming practices.
 
The new EEOC materials also provide a number of examples, including some the agency settled in 2013, to demonstrate these concepts.

In addition to review the new guidance materials, employers should implement the following steps to ensure compliance with EEOC mandates:
 
  • Adopt clear and effective policies prohibiting ethnic and religious discrimination, including harassment. 
  • Provide multiple avenues, including confidential complaint mechanisms, for employees to promptly report allegations of discrimination or harassment to management.
  • Prohibit retaliation and reassure employees that they are protected from retaliation if they request a religious accommodation or report a complaint of religious discrimination or harassment.
  • Publish and distribute work place dress code and grooming requirements so employees and job applicants know if they need to request an accommodation for religious purposes.
  • Train managers to identify and respond to religious accommodation requests.
 
If you have questions regarding religious accommodations or need assistance preparing appropriate work place policies, management training, or addressing other religious discrimination issues, please contact Andrea J. Bernard (abernard@wnj.com or 616.752.2199), Karen J. VanderWerff (kvanderwerff@wnj.com or 616.752.2183), or any other member of Warner’s Labor and Employment Practice Group.

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