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A Message from the Chair


Jenny R. Yang


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EEOC @ 50 - Investing in Solutions for the 21st Century Workplace
(January 2015)

Post from Chair Jenny R. Yang - February 25, 2015

Workplace Accommodations for Religious Practices and Beliefs

Today, the Supreme Court heard arguments in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., an EEOC case involving a 17-year old Muslim woman whom Abercrombie & Fitch declined to hire for a position in an Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa, Oklahoma because she wore a hijab (a head scarf worn by some Muslim women) to her job interview. The question in the case is whether that action constituted prohibited discrimination on the basis of religion. 

In July 2015, we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the EEOC opening its doors.  On this occasion, it is fitting that we also look back at the EEOC's work to enforce the prohibitions against religious discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. From the very beginnings of the agency, one of the EEOC's first challenges was to resolve how Title VII applied to conflicts between work schedules and religious holidays and observances. As far back as 1970, the EEOC has been providing guidance to employers on how to comply with Title VII's mandate that employers accommodate the religious practices of applicants and employees when no undue hardship is imposed on operation of the business.

Following the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, the EEOC led efforts to protect against workplace discrimination based on religion. Just days after the attacks, Chair Cari Dominguez issued a call to employers and employees to promote tolerance and to guard against workplace discrimination based on national origin or religion.  EEOC produced practical information for employees who believed they may be subjected to religious or national origin discrimination in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  For employers, EEOC provided answers on how they could handle situations to prevent or correct unlawful discrimination.  The EEOC also engaged in extensive outreach and public education across the country.

More recently, in 2008, the EEOC issued extensive materials on religious discrimination including a Question-and-Answer guide, a compilation of Best Practices for Eradicating Religious Discrimination in the Workplace, and instructions for EEOC investigations of charges alleging discrimination based on religion.

The EEOC's work to eradicate religious discrimination continues to the present day. In fiscal year 2014 alone, the EEOC received 3,549 charges alleging discrimination due to religion.  Both employees and employers have many questions about religious accommodations in the workplace, and the EEOC's What You Should Know About Workplace Discrimination provides answers to facilitate compliance. To further assist both employers and employees, the EEOC issued new technical assistance addressing workplace rights and responsibilities with respect to religious dress and grooming.  The EEOC has also brought lawsuits on behalf of applicants and workers representing a vast array of religious faiths and beliefs including Sikhs, Pentecostal Christians, Muslims, Rastafarians, Jews, Kemetics, and Messianic Christians.

Title VII's strong prohibition against religious discrimination is grounded in our country's long history of religious freedom and tolerance. It carefully balances the needs of employers with the rights of applicants and employees to work without abandoning their religious practices and beliefs. Fifty years after the passage of Title VII and the creation of the EEOC, we recognize this remarkable provision and the difference it has made for persons of faith in the workplace by promoting full economic opportunity without requiring individuals to sacrifice their religious beliefs or practices.

This post from Chair Jenny R. Yang is the second in a series of messages highlighting the EEOC's work.