On March 6, 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published a question-and-answer guide, entitled “Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities,” and an accompanying fact sheet, to help clarify the religious provisions of Title VII for employers.  The new EEOC guidance answers questions about what Title VII prohibits and what types of reasonable accommodations may be required for employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs.
Here are some of the highlights from the EEOC’s new guidance:

  • Prohibitions of Title VII:  Title VII prohibits disparate impact discrimination, disparate treatment discrimination, retaliation, and harassment based on religion.
  • Customer Preference:  Customer preference is not a defense to a claim of religious discrimination under Title VII.  For example, employees may not be segregated or excluded from certain jobs (such as jobs with customer contact) based on actual or perceived customer preference.
  • Reasonable Accommodations:  Under Title VII, employers may be required to provide a reasonable accommodation for sincerely held religious beliefs or practices – such as making an exception to dress and grooming requirements or preferences – unless it would pose an undue hardship.
  • Covering Religious Garb:  Generally, requiring an employee’s religious garb, marking, or article of faith to be covered is not a reasonable accommodation if that would violate the employee’s religious beliefs.
  • What Constitutes an Undue Hardship:  In general, an employer may bar an employee’s religious dress or grooming practices based on legitimate safety, security, or health concerns that would result in an actual undue hardship.  Co-worker disgruntlement and customer preference, however, are not considered undue hardships.
  • Exceptions for Non-Religious Employees Are Not Required:  When an employer makes an exception for an employee as a religious accommodation, the employer may still refuse to allow similar exceptions sought by other employees for secular reasons.

Takeaway:  The new EEOC guidance regarding religious garb and grooming practices are good sources of information for employers with questions about Title VII’s requirements for religious accommodations in the workplace.