New EEOC Guidance Addresses Religious Discrimination in Workplace

By Kathy Gurchiek Jul 25, 2008
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A sharp rise in the number of charges of religious discrimination, an upswing in religious diversity in the United States and requests for guidance from stakeholders prompted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to issue a new Compliance Manual Section under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The EEOC announced the updated guidance during its July 22, 2008, meeting in Washington, D.C., noting that the section addresses a wide range of complex workplace issues.

It’s intended, EEOC Chair Naomi C. Earpsaid in a statement, as an updated resource “for employers, employees, practitioners and EEOC staff seeking information on Title VII’s prohibition against religious discrimination.”

It addresses such issues as what constitutes religion under Title VII; disparate treatment based on religion; the requirement to reasonably accommodate religious beliefs and practices; and religion-based harassment and retaliation. It also provides guidance on balancing employee rights regarding religious expression with employers’ need to maintain efficient, productive workplaces.

The number of filings by workers in the private sector charging religious discrimination has more than doubled in the past 15 years, from 1,388 in fiscal 1992 to 2,880 in fiscal 2007, according to the EEOC.

The agency doesn’t know for sure the reason for the increase, EEOC spokesman Christine Nazer said.

“We can only guess. Some of the reasons we think this may be happening may be due to a more diverse workforce throughout the country. Diversity is not just race and gender, and that may be contributing to the [filings] increase,” she told SHRM Online.

In fact, the new section contains an overview quoting findings from a 2001 Religion in the Workplace Survey by the Society for Human Resource Management/Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding that point to an increase in religious diversity in the workforce.

Among 552 HR professionals surveyed, 36 percent reported an increase in religious diversity of their employees in the preceding five years.

Nazer also pointed to a recent Gallup Poll that indicated Americans are increasingly open in the workplace about their religious views.

“That more open atmosphere may be contributing to the increase [in filings],” she theorized. In addition, “people may be more familiar with the federal laws that prohibit workplace discrimination” and thus more quick to respond by filing charges.

Whatever the reason, Nazer said, “there’s just been a lot of buzz” about religious discrimination” and the Compliance Manual Section is the result.

In conjunction with the new section, the EEOC issued a question-and-answer sheet and a booklet on best practices, including a section on employee best practices.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.

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