Hallelujah! 5 things about religion in the workplace that you may not have known

Preacher 2.flickrCC.daliscar1
"Spread the good news!"

Our friends at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have issued a Fact Sheet for young workers on religious discrimination in the workplace, which brought me back to the EEOC's older Q&A and Best Practices on religious discrimination, harassment, and accommodation.

The EEOC's guidance is solid, reasonable, and consistent with most (if not all) of the court decisions that I'm aware of.

If you're an employer, I recommend that you read both documents all the way through. But here are five things from the Q&A that you might not have known about Title VII and religion in the workplace:

No. 1: "Religion" includes a lot. It's more than Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. "Religion" also includes "religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others." In fact, it can include "non-theistic 'moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.'" Religious belief is of course protected by law, but so is the absence of a religious belief -- for example, it would be against the law for a devout Jewish business owner with 15 or more employees to refuse to hire the most qualified applicant because the applicant was an atheist. However, personal views, including social, political, or economic views, are not "religion" even if they are sincerely and strongly held.

"Don't get preachy, now."

No. 2: It is not "religious harassment" to wear clothing or jewelry at work that relates to one's faith. Religious harassment also doesn't include "workplace displays of religious artifacts or posters" (such as holy cards, Stars of David, or a Quran beside the computer) . . . as long as the displays don't demean people of other faiths. It's also not harassment to use a generic "religious" greeting or expression at work, like saying "God bless you" to a co-worker who just sneezed. On the other hand, criticizing or making fun of another employee's beliefs, or aggressive and unwelcome proselytizing, might be.

No. 3: If an employee needs a religious accommodation, the employer has to provide it unless doing so would be an undue hardship. The "undue hardship" standard is very difficult to meet in the context of a request for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But under Title VII's religious accommodation requirement, the standard is lower (meaning that it is easier for an employer to deny a religious accommodation based on "undue hardship"). If the requested religious accommodation would require the employer to incur more than a de minimis expense, then the employer doesn't have to provide it. But the employer should be open to less burdensome ways to accommodate the employee.

Preacher 3.TimesSquare.flickrCC.RussellPetcoff
An undue hardship is not the end of the world if you can offer alternatives.

No. 4: It's not enough for an employee to tell the employer, "I need Sundays off." An employee who needs a religious accommodation must communicate to the employer (1) that he or she needs the accommodation, and (2) that the need results from a conflict between a work requirement and the employee's religious beliefs. "I need Sundays off because I believe it's a sin to work on Sunday" should do the trick.

No. 5: It's ok to let your religious "freak flag" fly at work (within reason). This one was my favorite. Well-meaning employers frequently think they should ban all discussions or expressions of religious belief among their employees. This is a misconception and an overcorrection, and it's very helpful to have the EEOC say, "Employers should not try to suppress all religious expression in the workplace."

Image Credits: From flickr, Creative Commons license. Street preacher 1 by daliscar1; indoor preacher by evclpics; street preacher 2 (on Times Square, New York City) by Russell Petcoff.

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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