Employers in Texas should be aware of the recent compliance manual changes from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on religious discrimination in the workplace. The changes to the compliance manual focus specifically on religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As the EEOC explains, “under Title VII, an employer is prohibited from discriminating because of religion in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or other terms, conditions or privileges of employment, and also cannot ‘limit, segregate, or classify’ applicants or employees based on religion ‘in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee.’”
The primary changes to the compliance manual involve how religion is defined under Title VII, who is eligible for protections against religious discrimination, which organizations qualify for a religious organization exemption, and what constitutes a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s religious beliefs.
Eligibility for Religious Discrimination Protection
Under Title VII, an employee is protected against religious discrimination if the employee has a “sincerely held” religious belief, and if the belief is based on a religion, regardless of whether the religion is recognized as an organized religion. The EEOC compliance manual changes do not affect a person’s ability to be protected against religious discrimination on these bases, but rather extends protections against religious discrimination to employees who do not exercise a religious belief. The manual says: “The non-discrimination provisions of the statute also protect employees who do not possess religious beliefs or engage in religious practices.”
This change addresses employees who have previously faced discrimination because of non-adherence to a religious belief in the workplace, or an employee’s “antipathy toward religion” or failure to hold the same religious beliefs as others in the place of employment. As an employer in Texas, it is critical to understand that, based on this language in the compliance manual, you cannot discriminate against an employee because of a lack of religious belief.
Eligibility for Religious Organization Exemption
Title VII allows “a qualifying religious organization to assert a defense to a Title VII claim of discrimination or retaliation that it made the challenged employment decision on the basis of religion.” According to the new guidance, the EEOC “will consider the facts on a case-by-case basis,” noting that “no one factor is dispositive in determining if a covered entity is a religious organization under Title VII’s exemption.” This shift may allow additional organizations to be eligible for the exemption.
Reasonable Accommodations for Religious Beliefs and Practices
Title VII requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs and practices, assuming that those accommodations do not constitute an undue hardship for the employer. The compliance manual changes clarify that commonly provided reasonable accommodations include “flexible scheduling,” “voluntary substitutes or swaps of shifts and assignments,” “lateral transfers or changes in job assignment,” and “modifying workplace practices, policies, or procedures.” As an employer, you should know that these types of requested accommodations likely will not constitute an undue hardship under federal law and will be required for an employee seeking a religious accommodation.
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