Ever say “bless you” after someone sneezes? Well of course, it’s rude not to, right? So I was taught… How about “wear church clothes” when someone asks you how to dress? Until recently, I have never given it a second thought. However, a unique religious discrimination charge recently had me diving into religious discrimination cases where I came upon the phrase “wear church clothes” used by an employer to an employee (who happened to be Muslim and thus did not appreciate the reference). How that case shook out is a bit of a long story, you can read it here, but it got me thinking that employers (and their supervisors) should be cautious when using phrases with good intentions, yet with historically religious connotations.
So, why am I sharing this, other than I had my own “light bulb” moment this week? On March 8, the Department of Justice announced a new inter-agency initiative, “Combating Religious Discrimination”. Along with the DOL, EEOC, DOE, DHS, OFCCP, and a lot more departments with acronyms, the DOJ is bringing the agencies together to discuss how to protect people and places of worship from religion-based hate crimes and religious discrimination. To do this, the DOJ is hosting several roundtable discussions around the nation; the one in Birmingham, Alabama will focus on religious discrimination in the workplace.
While my first thought is, okay, so all the government agencies are going to representatives around the nation to talk to each other about discrimination – so what? However, I think it is fair to say that this suggests we can expect to see heightened enforcement of Title VII religious discrimination claims and proactive outreach by the EEOC to ensure employers are not unlawfully discriminating against persons based on their religious beliefs (or lack thereof in the case of an Atheist).
In support of the DOJ’s new initiative, Jenny R. Yang, EEOC Chair stated, “Working with our federal and community partners enables EEOC to better understand and address religious discrimination in the workplace, and to inform affected communities of protections under federal law.” Accordingly, the EEOC recently posted new guidance, ‘What You Should Know’, compiling EEOC’s resources regarding religious and national origin discrimination. Given this is a hot topic for those regulating our employers, it would not be a bad idea to review the EEOC’s guidance on this issue and take a second look at any questionable practices with an employment law attorney. Praying before meetings? Offering a bible study before, after or during work hours? Decorating the office for Christmas but not other holidays? Providing Christmas Day off but not other religious holidays? And what about an Atheist – how do you balance their lack of belief in gods or supernatural beings with those who have such beliefs? Perhaps it is time for a second look at some probably long-standing historical workplace practices.