On January 15, 2021, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued an updated Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination. The EEOC voted 3-2 to approve the update.
The update supersedes the EEOC’s Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination issued on July 22, 2008. The EEOC noted that “the contents of the manual do not have the force and effect of law and are not meant to bind the public in any way. The manual is intended only to provide clarity to the public regarding existing requirements under the law or agency policies.”
According to the EEOC, the prior version of the manual, last updated in 2008, “did not reflect recent legal developments and emerging issues.” Since 2008, several Supreme Court decisions, as well as decisions from the lower courts, “have altered the legal landscape.” The update includes discussions of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions and lower court decisions rendered subsequent to the publication of the prior compliance manual.
The updated manual covers topics ranging from discrimination in employment decisions to harassment to reasonable accommodations in the workplace. The manual also discusses the interaction of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) with the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
For example, the new manual notes that what constitutes religious beliefs is broadly defined. “The presence of a deity or deities is not necessary for a religion to receive protection under Title VII.” Moreover, “religious beliefs can include unique beliefs held by a few or even one individual; however, mere personal preferences are not religious beliefs.” “Individuals who do not practice any religion are also protected from discrimination on the basis of religion or lack thereof.” Finally the guidance notes that “Title VII requires employers to accommodate religious beliefs, practices and observances if the beliefs are ‘sincerely held’ and the reasonable accommodation poses no undue hardship on the employer.
The manual also lists examples of cases where the EEOC may find discrimination if an employer does not provide a reasonable accommodation—for example, if a supervisor is skeptical about an employee’s sincerely held religious belief.
Finally, the manual provides guidance to EEOC investigators. This will be helpful to employers and legal counsel as well, particularly in defending religious discrimination cases going forward.
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