EEOC Proposes Updates to its Guidance on Religious Discrimination

Arent Fox
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Arent Fox

On November 17, 2020, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced that it is seeking public input on its updated Compliance Manual Section on Religious Discrimination (the Manual). 
 

According to the EEOC, the proposed updated guidance “describes in what ways Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) protects individuals from religious discrimination in the workplace and sets forth the legal protections available to religious employers.” The draft guidance is available for review here.

During a public meeting on November 9, the Commission voted along party lines (3-2) to publish its proposed changes to the Manual. The 30-day comment period ends on December 17, 2020. After reviewing the public input received, the Commission will consider appropriate revisions to the draft guidance before finalizing it and replacing the 2008 version.

The EEOC noted that the current version of the Manual, last updated in 2008, “does not reflect recent legal developments and emerging issues.” Since 2008, several Supreme Court decisions, as well as the lower courts, have altered the legal landscape. According to the EEOC, the revisions to the guidance “include important updates to the discussion of protections for employees from religious discrimination in the context of reasonable accommodations and harassment. It also expands the discussion of defenses that may be available to religious employers.” 

The EEOC observed that the number of religious discrimination charges filed with the EEOC has increased significantly from 1997 to 2019, although the total number of such charges remains relatively small compared to charges filed on other bases. According to the agency, “[m]any employers seek legal guidance in managing equal employment opportunity (EEO) issues that arise from religious diversity as well as the demands of the modern American workplace. This document is designed to be a practical resource for employers, employees, practitioners, and EEOC enforcement staff on Title VII’s prohibition against religious discrimination.”

However, the EEOC cautioned that the document “does not have the force and effect of law and is not meant to bind the public in any way. It is intended to provide clarity to the public on existing requirements under the law and how the Commission will analyze these matters in performing its duties.”

The document is organized by the following topics:

I – Coverage issues, including the types of cases that arise, the definition of “religion” and “sincerely held,” the religious organization exemption, and the ministerial exception.

II – Employment decisions based on religion, including recruitment, hiring, segregation, promotion, discipline, and compensation, as well as differential treatment with respect to religious expression; customer preference; security requirements; and bona fide occupational qualifications.

III – Harassment, including religious belief or practice as a condition of employment or advancement, hostile work environment, and employer liability issues.

IV – Reasonable accommodation, including notice of the conflict between religion and work where applicable, scope of the accommodation requirement and undue hardship defense, and common methods of accommodation.

V – Related forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on national origin, race, color, or sex, as well as retaliation.

The proposed update contains numerous examples, as well as employer and employee best practices.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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