On March 6, 2014, the EEOC issued new guidelines with respect to religious dress and grooming under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its focus is on the need for employers to accommodate employees who wear religious clothing or articles, cannot wear certain types of garments, and adhere to shaving or hair length observances. The EEOC’s publications and more detailed information can be found here: http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/3-6-14.cfm. Some notable points:
- Title VII protects all aspects of religious observance, practice, and belief, and defines religion very broadly to include not only traditional, organized religions, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or may seem illogical or unreasonable to others.
- Employees who profess no religious beliefs are also protected.
- Title VII applies to any practice that is motivated by a religious belief, even if other people may engage in the same practice for secular reasons.
- Title VII’s accommodation requirement only applies to religious beliefs that are “sincerely held.” However, just because an individual’s religious practices may deviate from commonly-followed tenets of the religion, the employer should not automatically assume that his or her religious observance is not sincere.
- The fact that an employee’s religious belief changes over time does not mean it is not “sincerely held.”
- An employer cannot exclude someone from a position because of discriminatory customer preference.
- An employer may be obligated to make exceptions to its own workplace policies in order to accommodate an employee with a sincerely held religious belief.
Based on these guidelines, it appears the key battle in religious accommodation lawsuits would be whether the employee’s religious belief was “sincerely held.”