Posted On: October 4, 2008

EEOC Issues New Guidance on Religious Discrimination

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission "EEOC" issued new guidelines on July 22, 2008, stating charges of religious discrimination filed with the EEOC have more than doubled since 1992.

The EEOC clarified the term "Religion".

The new guidance starts with a section informing employers that the concept of "religion" has a very broad definition. Employers should understand that religion is not limited to the more common faiths – it also includes non-theistic moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong, and unique views held by a few (or even one) individual.
The EEOC provides an example of a man who practices the Kemetic religion, based on ancient Egyptian faith, with a group numbering fewer than ten members. This broad interpretation of religion should give pause to employers. The guidance explains that an employer should not reject his faith principles – including his wrist tattoos expressing his servitude to the sun god Ra – simply because the religion is "incomprehensible" to the average American.

The EEOC recommends employers provide a great deal of latitude to a claim that a particular practice or appearance is religious in nature, generally accepting that the sincerity of the belief is not in dispute. In a nutshell, the belief of the employee is prima facia valid on its face and the burden shifts to the employer to show the belief is not religious. The EEOC does say employers can call a supposed religious practice into question if the employee has behaved in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief in the past (e.g., history of working on Sundays), if the benefit sought is likely sought for secular reasons (e.g., easy work schedule), or if the timing is suspect (e.g., following an earlier request for the same benefit that was rejected).

The EEOC recommends a three-pronged approach to minimize the risk of discrimination claims: 1) establish written criteria for hiring and discipline, such as a policy handbook; 2) record the business reasons for disciplinary action through proper documentation; and 3) train managers on proper company policies.

Religious Harassment 101
The guidance provides some religious harassment 101 pointers. Basically it is improper to require or coerce an employee to abandon, alter or adopt a religious practice as a condition of employment.

Additionally the EEOC demands the employer exercise reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior, and if the employee unreasonably fails to take advantage of preventive opportunities, the employer can escape

The full compliance manual can be found at www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/religion.html" target="_blank">http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/religion.html