By: Sergio D. Simoes
On March 6, 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”) released new guidelines on how federal employment discrimination law, specifically Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, applies to religious dress and grooming practices, and what steps employers can take to meet their legal responsibilities in this area. Examples of religious dress and grooming practices include wearing religious clothing or articles, observing a religious prohibition against wearing certain garments, or adhering to shaving or hair length observances. In most instances, employers are required by federal law to make exceptions to their usual rules or preferences to allow employees to observe religious dress and grooming practices.
The EEOC has not created any additional obligations with its new guidelines. They are intended merely to clarify questions concerning the application of Title VII to religious issues in the workplace. The guidelines remind employers that unless it would result in an undue hardship, employers must consider accommodating an employee’s request to wear religious garb or engage in sincerely held religious practices at work. To that end, the guidelines state the following:
• Dress Codes: An employer must generally accommodate an employee’s religious grooming customs or dress code under Title VII, even if the practices conflict with the employer’s existing dress codes or appearance policies.
• Job Assignment & Customer Contact: An employer may neither assign an employee to a non-customer contact position, nor consider the preferences of customers or co-workers on the grounds of discomfort with a particular religious practice or garb for job assignments.
• Marketing: An employer cannot rely on its marketing image to deny accommodation to religious grooming practices or garb.
• Workplace Safety: An employer may bar an employee’s religious dress or grooming practice because of workplace safety, security, or health concerns, so long as the practice actually poses an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.
The guidelines provide that Title VII’s accommodation requirements apply only to “sincerely held” religious beliefs. If an employer has a “legitimate reason” to question the sincerity of an employee’s religious beliefs or practices for which an accommodation has been requested, the employer may ask the employee for information reasonably needed to consider the request. However, an employer should not make the mistake of assuming that an employee’s religious observance is insincere simply because the observance may differ from commonly followed tenets of the religion or because an employee’s practice changes over time. In addition, employers should be aware that there are no automatic trigger words to make an accommodation request. For instance, if an employee tells his employer that he must wear a beard for religious reasons that is sufficient to constitute an accommodation request.
An employer cannot retaliate against an employee who makes a religious accommodation request under Title VII. Moreover, an employer may be held liable for unlawful religious harassment under Title VII when the employer knows or should have known an employee has been subject to unwelcome statements, offensive remarks, or physical mistreatment based on religion or a request for accommodation. Employers, therefore, should consult and update their workplace policies to ensure that they meet these guidelines and that their employees are properly educated in them.