EEOC Issues Guidance on Religious Accommodations
On March 6, 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released a new informal guidance for employers addressing an employer’s obligation under Title VII to provide reasonable religious garb and grooming accommodations to employees. The guidance is issued following one of the busiest years before the EEOC with regard to religious accommodation charges, as the number of religious accommodation charges filed with the EEOC have more than doubled during the past ten years.
The March 2014 EEOC guidance reaffirms the agency’s position that employers are required to accommodate employee requests for reasonable religious accommodations related to their garb or grooming, where the employee's religious belief is sincerely held and where granting the request would not pose an undue hardship on the employer. The guidance provides numerous examples to illustrate that compliance often will require employers to deviate from their strictly enforced dress, grooming or uniform policies. The EEOC also expressly recognized that employers may require the covering of religious attire or clothing, so long as doing so would not violate an employee’s religious beliefs. Employers may also bar an employee’s religious dress or grooming practice based on workplace safety, security or health concerns, but only if the practice actually poses an undue hardship on the operation of the business.
The EEOC also confirmed its position that employers may not reassign employees to another job or work location based on religious garb or grooming practices for the purpose of avoiding customers. Similarly, employers may not refuse to hire or deny an accommodation based upon concerns that an employee’s religious garb or grooming practice may have a negative impact on the employer’s image.
An EEOC informal guidance only reflects the EEOC’s interpretation of Title VII, and courts are not bound to follow this interpretation. We note that in two recent decisions, the United States Supreme Court rejected the EEOC’s view in cases that addressed retaliation and liability for supervisor conduct. Nevertheless, employers should review the guidance and consult with their employment law counsel when determining appropriate religious accommodation policies, procedures and training for their organization.