EEOC Clarifies Employers' Title VII Obligations for Religious Discrimination

Author: Emily Scace, XpertHR Legal Editor

January 27, 2021

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has clarified how Title VII of the Civil Rights Act applies to religious employers and organizations in its newly revised  Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination. While the guidance does not create new obligations for employers, it provides insight into the EEOC's current priorities and the agency's approach when investigating a claim of religious discrimination.

The updated guidance expands on the notion that Title VII's protections apply "whether the religious beliefs or practices in question are common or non-traditional, and regardless of whether they are recognized by any organized religion." It also notes that lack of belief is protected under the federal civil rights law.

Broader Exceptions for Religious Employers

The new guidance offers a more expansive definition of religious organizations, which, unlike secular organizations, are permitted to preferentially employ individuals of their own religion. This protection extends to deciding to terminate an employee whose conduct or religious beliefs - even outside of work - are inconsistent with those of the employer.

To illustrate the point, the guidance provides an example of a Catholic college employee who was terminated after signing a pro-choice newspaper advertisement. According to the EEOC, this would generally be a permissible decision by a qualifying religious organization.

Although religious organizations are not exempt from EEO laws pertaining to other protected characteristics such as race, sex, age, and disability, or from related antiretaliation requirements, the new guidance states that a religious organization may assert that it made an employment decision on the basis of religion as a defense to a Title VII discrimination or retaliation claim.

Another significant update concerns the ministerial exception, which bars many Title VII claims by employees at religious institutions who "play certain key roles" in carrying out the organization's religious mission. The new guidance broadens the applicability of the Title VII ministerial exception to employees "who perform vital religious duties at the core of the mission of the religious institution." This more expansive definition includes:

  • Teachers at religious schools;
  • Church musicians; and
  • Other employees who perform religious functions.

The ministerial exception is broader than the religious organization exemption in the sense that it applies regardless of whether a challenged employment decision was for religious reasons.

Revised Accommodation Approach

Although an employer need not provide an accommodation unless it has notice that one is requested for religious reasons, the guidance notes that there may be situations in which an employer could be considered "on notice" even in the absence of an explicit request. However, an employer can also violate Title VII by taking an adverse action based on a belief that an applicant or employee might need a religious accommodation, unless the accommodation would have imposed an undue hardship.

In evaluating accommodation requests, the guidance stresses that the relevant focus is on the sincerity and religious nature of the applicant's or employee's religious belief or practice rather than on the employer's perspective. An employer should not assume that a request is invalid simply because the employer is unfamiliar with the particular religious belief or practice.

Best practices for handling religious accommodation requests include:

  • Informing employees and applicants that the employer will make reasonable efforts to accommodate religious practices;
  • Training managers and supervisors to recognize religious accommodation requests;
  • Developing internal procedures for processing religious accommodation requests;
  • Avoiding stereotypes and assumptions about what constitutes a religious belief and what type of accommodation is appropriate; and
  • Engaging in a dialogue about the employee's religious needs and the available accommodation options.