The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") recently issued new guidance concerning religious workplace accommodations. The first document, titled Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities is a guide (including 21 case-specific examples) to when and how employers must accommodate employees' religiously based requests on clothing, religious dress, head coverings, hair styles, and facial hair. The related Fact Sheet summarizes the basic requirements of Title VII.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees' sincerely held religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue burden on the employer. This means that, in most instances, employers are required to make exceptions to their usual rules or policies to permit applicants and employees to observe religious attire and grooming practices in the workplace.
Per the guidelines, "Examples of religious dress and grooming practices include wearing religious clothing or articles (e.g., a Muslim hijab (headscarf), a Sikh turban, or a Christian cross); observing a religious prohibition against wearing certain garments (e.g., a Muslim, Pentecostal Christian, or Orthodox Jewish woman's practice of not wearing pants or short skirts), or adhering to shaving or hair length observances (e.g., Sikh uncut hair and beard, Rastafarian dreadlocks, or Jewish peyes (sidelocks))." The guidelines also specifically prohibit "back-rooming," or keeping employees out of sight from clientele because of their garb.
Noting that the number of religious discrimination charges filed has nearly doubled since 2007, the EEOC advises employers that the definition of "religion" is very broad and includes not only organized religions but also religious beliefs that are "new, uncommon, not part of formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others" as well as non-theistic moral or ethical beliefs. The law's protections also extend to those who need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs – for example, an employer cannot make employees wear religious clothing or articles (such as a cross) if they object on grounds of non-religious belief. According to the EEOC, "Because this definition is so broad, whether or not a practice or belief is religious typically is not disputed in Title VII religious discrimination cases."
The message from all of this for employers? In one word – Accommodation.