The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission just last month voted to update the Compliance Manual Section on Religious Discrimination. The manual, which was last updated in 2008, serves as a resource for both employees and employers as it provides a summary of the EEOC’s interpretations of existing laws dealing with religious discrimination.
In a 3-2 vote the commission has decided to publish their proposed revisions to the public. The public has until December 17th, 2020 to provide their own input as after the commission will revise it and make the updates final.
Members of the commission say that these proposed revisions are needed to better reflect the legal opinions from the federal courts as well as take into account various Supreme Court precedents that have been issued since 2008.
Keith Sonderling, the EEOC Vice Chair, comments that “As a grandson of holocaust survivors, I have a profound respect for religious freedom. I am fully committed to protecting the rights of all workers to be free from religious discrimination in the workplace.”
The commission has commented that the revisions are overall focusing on two important enforcements; that of protections for employees and of defenses for employers. The first enforcement looks into how Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from religious discrimination. In the words of the commission, “The revisions to the guidance includes important updates to the discussion of protections for employees from religious discrimination in the context of reasonable accommodations and harassment.”
Therefore, the revisions will be sure to reflect the decisions made by the Supreme Court in 2015 that sided with the EEOC against retailer Abercrombie & Fitch. In this instance the retailer refused to hire an applicant due to them wearing a headscarf for religious reasons. Abercrombie & Fitch defended their refusal to hire the applicant by stating that the headscarf did not conform to its dress policy. However, the Supreme Court ruled that if an employer’s motivating factor for not hiring an applicant was due to the employer’s refusal in making religious accommodations for the employee then that is in fact against the law as it is religious discrimination. The only exception for not providing accommodations would be if those accommodations imposed an undue hardship on the employer.
The commission also states that the revisions will “expand the discussion of defenses that may be available to religious employers.” This is another focus that will be sure to reflect the 2014 Supreme Court Decision in Burwell v Hobby Lobby Store Inc. This case saw the Supreme Court side with the retailer as it ruled that Hobby Lobby did not have to follow the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage mandate as it conflicted with the owner’s closely held religious beliefs.
Jocelyn Samuels one of the five members of the commission said that she encourages “members of the public to carefully review the draft. The public’s input will be critical in ensuring that we have the most informed sense on how religious discrimination plays out” in the workplace.
The updated guidance which goes on to give more in detail analysis regarding reasonable accommodations, undue hardship, exceptions, and more is currently available for the public to review and can be found here.
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