By: Shelbie J. Byers, Drewry Simmons Vornehm, LLP
Last month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) issued a one-page fact sheet geared at young workers to educate them about religious discrimination and religious accommodations and their rights associated with each as provided under Title VII. While the fact sheet is written for youth/teen employees, it is well worth the read by employers and managers as a quick reminder of their obligations under the law as well.
In short, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against its employees or applicants, or allow the harassment of its employees, because of their religious practices or beliefs. Further, the law requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations to employees for their religious practices, unless doing so would cause an undue hardship on the employer’s business.
As a reminder, religion includes more than just the traditionally known religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Religion also includes lesser known religious beliefs, even if they are not part of a formal church or sect, as long as they are sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs. The law does not protect merely personal views like politics, even if such beliefs are sincerely and strongly held. Some religions are associated with national origins. Title VII also provides protections against discrimination or harassment of employees because of their actual or perceived national origin or religion, or both.
The EEOC also reminds youth workers in the fact sheet of their rights to ask for workplace accommodations. These accommodations are available under federal law for any employee, regardless of age, if they are working in a business with 15 or more employees and the accommodation would not otherwise cause an undue hardship. The undue hardship standard for religious accommodations is not the same as the test for accommodations provided under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Rather, an undue hardship for a religious accommodation is much lower, in that the employer is required to provide not more accommodation than would cost a de minimis expense; however, employers are encouraged to remain open to providing less burdensome accommodations.
Title VII also makes it unlawful for employees to endure workplace harassment based on their religion or religious beliefs. While a common phrase like “God Bless You” in response to a sneeze is not considered harassment, undue proselytizing and/or criticism, inappropriate jokes and making derogatory remarks, including poking fun at someone because of religion, would usually rise to the level of actionable harassment.
Employers should take time to review their employment policies and practices and make sure they are providing their employees with their legally protected religious rights in the workplace. The newly issued EEOC fact sheet is available at https://www.eeoc.gov/youth/downloads/religion.pdf.