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What You Should Know about the EEOC and Religious Discrimination

Recent events, including the upcoming Supreme Court argument in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch have focused attention on the issue of discrimination on the basis of religion.  The information below highlights what you should know about the EEOC's enforcement in this area.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment. The Act requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of an employee or prospective employee, unless to do so would pose an undue hardship to the employer.  A reasonable religious accommodation is any adjustment to the work environment that will allow the employee to practice his religion. Flexible scheduling, voluntary substitutions or swaps, job reassignments, and lateral transfers are examples of accommodating an employee's religious beliefs.

In fiscal year 2014 the EEOC received 3,549 charges alleging discrimination on the basis of religion.  These charges represent a slight decrease from the past few years but remain significantly above the numbers from before fiscal year 2007.  The top issues alleged in religion charges are Discharge, Harassment, Terms and Conditions of Employment, and Reasonable Accommodation.  EEOC also realized 268 settlements and 34 successful conciliations from 3,575 resolutions in fiscal year 2014.  

The EEOC has filed 68 lawsuits since the beginning of fiscal year 2010 involving claims of religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  During the same period the Commission recovered approximately $4 million, as well as important injunctive and other case-specific "make whole" relief, for victims of religious discrimination.  A few notable cases are highlighted below:

  • EEOC v. Abercrombie and Fitch, and EEOC & Khan v. Abercrombie and Fitch  Abercrombie & Fitch agreed to pay $71,000 and to change its policies to settle two separate religious discrimination lawsuits on behalf of Muslim teens wearing hijabs (religious headscarves).  The settlement follows last week's ruling finding Abercrombie liable for religious discrimination in one case, and an April 2013 ruling dismissing its undue hardship claims in the other suit.  
  • EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc.:AutoZone settled a discrimination lawsuit filed in September 2010 that charged that the company violated federal law when it subjected a Sikh employee to harassment and refused to accommodate his religious need to wear a turban.
  • EEOC v. Scottish Food Systems, Inc. d/b/a Kentucky Fried Chicken and Laurinburg KFC Take Home, Inc. d/b/a Kentucky Fried Chicken:  KFC franchise settled an EEOC lawsuit alleging that it failed to accommodate Charging Party's religious beliefs and terminated her in violation of Title VII.  The EEOC alleged Defendant Scottish Food Systems purchased KFC and at that time informed Charging Party that she must wear pants to work because of their dress code policy.  The EEOC further claimed Charging Party notified Scottish Food Systems that she could not wear pants because of her religious beliefs.  Instead of reasonably accommodating her, Scottish Foods Systems terminated her for refusing to wear pants to work. 

The EEOC has developed information to educate employers, as well as the public, about religious discrimination, including Questions and Answers: Religious Discrimination in the Workplace and Best Practices for Eradicating Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

More recently the Commission issued technical assistance publications concerning Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities and an accompanying Fact Sheet describing when an employer's garb or grooming policies must give way to an employee's or applicant's sincerely-held religious beliefs or practices about certain garb or grooming, such as a headscarf for Muslims, Pentecostal women refusing to wear pants, or beards worn by Orthodox Jews or Sikhs.

Additionally, in the Federal sector the EEOC provides guidance to Federal agencies through no cost outreach and technical assistance.  In addition to EEOC religious discrimination and accommodation publications, EEOC Federal Sector representatives are available to make presentations and participate in meetings with federal employees and employers, and their representative groups.

Finally, in fiscal year 2014 EEOC posted a What You Should Know about Workplace Religious Accommodation which provides information on many recent cases on this topic resolved by the Commission.