In Political Climate Focused on Muslims, EEOC Cracks Down on Religious Discrimination

The agency will change its data collection options and provide education to younger workers

By Dana Wilkie Jul 28, 2016
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At a time when the nation's political discourse has focused on religion—particularly on Muslims entering the U.S.—the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is stepping up awareness of religious discrimination by educating younger workers and having claimants more specifically define their faith.

The commission announced July 22 that it is changing how it collects data about the religion of someone who alleges discrimination.

"What we're going to be asking for is more specific information about an individual's religious affiliation," said EEOC spokeswoman Christine Nazer. "Presently, we collect religious discrimination charges identifying these religions: Seventh Day Adventist, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Sikh and 'other.' The 'other' category was a bucket for other religions, so we're trying to more precisely identify the religious affiliation of the individual filing a charge. 'Other' isn't very helpful."

For example, Nazer said, someone who identifies as a Buddhist would now be listed under the "other" category. Under the new system, there would be a separate category for Buddhism and separate categories for other religions not now captured.

In addition, the EEOC on July 22 released a one-page fact sheet designed to help young workers—generally considered to be those under the age of 25, Nazer said—better understand their rights and responsibilities under federal laws that prohibit religious discrimination at work. The fact sheet is available at the EEOC's Youth@Work website.

"We want to ensure that those who may be new to the workforce are aware of their rights at work and that the EEOC is here to help if they encounter discrimination," Nazer said. "Those who are new to the workforce may not be aware of the EEOC's existence or … laws that protect them."

Discrimination Claims on Rise Since Sept. 11, 2001

GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has called for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the U.S. in an effort, he says, to quell terrorist activities.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. Justice Department reports that it has investigated more than 1,000 incidents involving acts of violence, threats, assault, vandalism and arson targeting religious and ethnic groups, and that it has prosecuted dozens of these cases.

The number of religious discrimination claims filed in the past 15 years exceeds the number filed before 2001. From 1997 through 2000, the EEOC received fewer than 2,000 such charges each year. Since 2001, the number of religious discrimination claims filed each year has exceeded 2,000, and the number filed since 2008 has exceeded 3,000 a year. 

"We don't have a definitive explanation for this, but it could be that the U.S. workforce has become more diverse," Nazer said.

In addition, since 1997, the monetary benefits awarded to those who file successful religious discrimination claims have nearly quintupled. 

The top issues alleged in the EEOC's religious discrimination charges are discharge, harassment, terms and conditions of employment, and reasonable accommodation.

Last December, following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the EEOC released docu­ments for employees and employers focusing on discrimination against people who are, or are perceived to be, Muslim or Middle Eastern. The EEOC noted that "recent world events have heightened concerns about workplace protections" for such employees.

The documents address question from workers such as: "In the last few months, a co-worker who knows I am Muslim regularly seeks me out for long discussions about Islam, ISIS and terrorism. I am increasingly uncomfortable with these conversations, as I prefer not to discuss politics and religion at work. I also am worried that these conversations may escalate or somehow spark hostility. What should I do?"

The documents also address how employers should handle hypothetical situations such as this: "Aliyyah, a Muslim woman who wears a hijab (or head covering), applies for a position as a cashier at XYZ Discount Goods. An XYZ assistant store manager fears that Aliyyah's religious attire will make customers uncomfortable. What should XYZ do?"

Federal Effort Targets Religious Discrimination

In March, the EEOC, along with several federal agencies, announced a coming series of community roundtable discussions across the country that would focus on religious discrimination. Among the roundtables was an April meeting in Birmingham, Ala., that examined religious discrimination in employment.

The Combating Religious Discrimination Today initiative is being coordinated by the White House and the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division to combat religion-based hate crimes.

"A diverse and inclusive workplace reflects the strength and richness of America and its history," said Patricia Shiu, director of the Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which is part of the federal effort. "Built by immigrants from every corner of the world, our nation's greatness must not be diminished by unlawful religious discrimination."


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