EEOC Issues Revised Religious Discrimination Manual

On January 15, 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued updated guidance to its Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination, the first significant update since 2008. 

In the updated manual, the EEOC provides important clarifications concerning Title VII religious discrimination laws in the workplace. These clarifications include the definition of “religion,” the types of organizations that qualify for the religious organization exemption, and when employers must make reasonable accommodations for religious reasons.

Definition of “religion.”

The updated manual makes it clear that employers must recognize that Title VII protects all approaches to religion, including a lack of religious faith. The manual states that “The non-discrimination provisions of the statute also protect employees who do not possess religious beliefs or engage in religious practices.” 

Organizations that qualify for the religious organization exemption.

Title VII’s religious organization exemption permits “a qualifying religious organization to assert as a defense to a Title VII claim of discrimination or retaliation that it made the challenged employment decision on the basis of religion.” 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. 

Reasonable accommodation for religious reasons.

Employers are required under Title VII 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 flexible scheduling, modification of certain workplace policies or procedures, or lateral changes in position. 

In determining what accommodations are reasonable, the guidance provides undue hardship analysis. The revised 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 as 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.”

When making a determination as to whether an accommodation is reasonable, the EEOC encourages employers to discuss the matter with the employee to consider other accommodations that would allow him or her to adhere to their religious beliefs without causing undue hardship for the employer’s business.

HBL has experience in all areas of benefits and employment law, offering a comprehensive solution to all your business benefits and HR/employment needs. We help ensure you are in compliance with the complex requirements of ERISA and the IRS code, as well as those laws that impact you and your employees. Together, we reduce your exposure to potential legal or financial penalties. Learn more by calling 678-439-6236.

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