United States: The EEOC Amplifies Its Focus On Religious Discrimination

Last Updated: March 28 2014
Article by Amy J. Traub

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") received 3,721 charges alleging religious discrimination in fiscal year 2013.  In partial response to these charges, earlier this month, the EEOC issued new technical assistance publications addressing religious dress and grooming in the workplace under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII").  Given the heightened attention the EEOC will likely give to religious discrimination issues, the following is general guidance on Title VII's religious garb and grooming requirements and best practices, which employers should keep in mind in order to help reduce the potential for Title VII violations.

Title VII generally requires most private-sector, and state and local government employers with 15 or more employees to allow applicants and employees to follow dress and grooming practices pursuant to their religious exercise, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer's business.

Employers often ask the following questions when assessing whether and to what extent a religious accommodation(s) is required:

What Is a Religious Practice?  Title VII broadly defines "religion" to include spiritual beliefs that are uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, or only subscribed to by a small number of people.  An employee's belief or practice can be "religious" even if it is not followed by others in the same religious sect, denomination, or congregation.  In fact, religious organization affiliation is not a condition for a religious accommodation.  A practice need only be "sincerely held" to be protected under Title VII regardless of whether it seems illogical or unreasonable to non-practitioners.  Due to this broad definition, the religious nature of a practice or belief typically is not in dispute in religious discrimination cases.

What Qualifies as Garb and/or Grooming Religious Practices?  Expressions of religious observance are frequently seen throughout the day.  Some common examples include the Christian cross, Jewish Star of David, Muslim hijab, and Sikh turban.  Shaving practices and hair lengths also are expressions of religious practice.  In addition to requiring employers to accommodate employees' clothing and grooming religious observances, the law also prohibits non-religious organizations from making an employee wear religious attire or participate in religious grooming to which the employee objects.

What Is a Religious Accommodation?  Religious accommodations come in many forms.  For example, if an employee's religious beliefs permit covering a religious item, that would be considered an accommodation.  When an employer requires employees to wear specific uniforms, a reasonable accommodation may be to modify that uniform.  For example, if specially designed pants are part of the required uniform, and the employee's religion proscribes the same, a reasonable accommodation could be permitting the employee to wear a close-fitting, long skirt of the same color and style as the pants.  Another prevailing occurrence is permitting an employee to style his or her hair in a ponytail when his or her religious practice is to wear their hair long.  While in some cases, uniformity of appearance may be so important that modifying the dress or grooming code could be argued to pose an undue hardship, the EEOC skeptically reviews such claims.  As such, we recommend making case-by-case determinations concerning religious accommodations.

What If I Do Not Believe that a Requested Accommodation Is Truly Based on a Religious Observance?  If employers have a legitimate reason to question whether an observance is "sincerely held," they may ask the requesting applicant or employee for information reasonably calculated to assess his or her request.  Otherwise, it is advisable to accept the employee's demand as covered by Title VII.  Significantly, an employee's religious belief—and degree of adherence thereto—may change over time and not affect its sincerity.

Must an Applicant or Employee Request a Specific Religious Accommodation?  Often, applicants or employees inform their employers of their need for a religious accommodation when the employer notifies them of any dress and/or grooming policy.  There are no magic words that trigger an employer's reasonable accommodation duties.  Employers are likewise permitted to discuss the parameters of any request for such an accommodation with the requesting party.  At times, it may be obvious that an applicant or employee's practice is religious and conflicts with a work policy, thereby necessitating a religious accommodation, absent a demand to that effect.

What Constitutes an Undue Hardship?  The courts typically define "undue hardship" as a "more than de minimus" fee or burden on the operation of the employer's business.  A good indication that a proposed religious accommodation constitutes an undue hardship is if the cost imposed by that accommodation would exceed an ordinary administrative charge.  Safety, security, or health may justify denying an accommodation request in a given situation; however, the employer may do so only if the accommodation would actually impose an undue hardship.  Co-worker disgruntlement or jealousy is not an undue hardship.

My Employee's Religious Practice Is Upsetting My Customers.  Can I Transfer My Employee to a Non-Customer-Facing Position?No.  In most cases, materially changing an employee's job in response to customer comments regarding the employee's religious practice is considered a discriminatory act in violation of Title VII.  The law proscribes limiting, segregating, or classifying employees based on religion, particularly the discriminatory preferences of others, including customers, clients, or co-workers.  The EEOC provides instructive guidance on this topic:

Nasreen, a Muslim applicant for an airport ticket counter position, wears a headscarf, or hijab, pursuant to her religious beliefs.  Although Nasreen is qualified, the manager feels that customers may think an airport employee who is identifiably Muslim is sympathetic to terrorist hijackers.  The manager, therefore, offers her a position in the airline's call center where she will only interact with customers by phone.  This is religious segregation and violates Title VII.

I Made One Religious Accommodation.  Now Am I Also Required to Accommodate All of My Employees?  No.  An employer does not waive any usual dress and/or grooming policy it may have by making a proper religious accommodation and is not required to permit similar accommodations for secular reasons.  

The EEOC can be expected to respond to religious discrimination charges aggressively in the coming year.  To help shield themselves from such allegations, employers should proactively reinforce the above-described principles through managerial and employee training and policies.  Baker Hostetler attorneys are available to assist employers in their efforts to comply with applicable state and federal laws and regulations.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:
  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.
  • Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.
    If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here
    If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here

    Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

    Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

    Use of www.mondaq.com

    You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


    Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

    The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


    Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

    • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
    • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
    • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

    Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

    Information Collection and Use

    We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

    We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

    Mondaq News Alerts

    In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


    A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

    Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

    Log Files

    We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


    This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

    Surveys & Contests

    From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


    If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


    From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

    *** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .


    This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

    Correcting/Updating Personal Information

    If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

    Notification of Changes

    If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

    How to contact Mondaq

    You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

    If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.

    By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions