Religious Harassment EEOC Guidance

EEOC Workplace Harassment

Religious Harassment EEOC Guidance

On April 29, 2024 the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued its  final Enforcement Guidance on Harassment in the Workplace.

Note: It’s “guidance”, not legally binding.

Lawsuit Blocking Enforcement of EEOC Guidance

Attorneys Generals from several states have already filed lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee against the EEOC, seeking to block the enforcement of the guidance on the basis that it illegally expands Title VII’s protections against sex-based discrimination by creating new gender-identity rules. Lawsuit Against EEOC Guidance

The lawsuit argues that while Title VII prohibits an employer from terminating an employee for being homosexual or transgender, it does not require employers to accommodate their employees’ gender identities (such as by requiring employees to use another employee’s preferred pronouns; allowing transgender employees to use the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity; refraining from requiring employees to adhere to the dress code that corresponds to their biological sex).

Updates Include Changes in Law
  • This is the first update in 25 years, with notable changes to the law like the landmark Bostock ruling: Bostock v Clayton Count (US Supreme Court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees against discrimination because of sexuality or gender identity.)
  • Covers harassment based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions; sexual orientation; and gender identity), national origin, disability, age (40 or older) and genetic information.
Religious Harassment

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination, including unlawful harassment,based on religion. Religion is broadly defined under Title VII.  Harassment basedon religion includes the use of religious epithets or off ensive comments based on acomplainant’s religion (including atheism or lack of religious belief), religious practices, or religious dress.

It also includes harassment based on religious stereotypes and harassment because of a request for a religious accommodation or receipt of a religious accommodation.  The Guidance offers 3 examples.

Example 5: Religion-Based Harassment.

Thiago, a fraud investigator at a property and casualty insurer, is agnostic and rejects organized religion.

After Thiago’ssister died unexpectedly, Thiago is despondent. He is approached by a coworker, Laney, who says that she can communicate with the dead and has received thefollowing messages from Thiago’s sister: the sister is suffering in Hell, and Thiago will go to Hell as well if he does not “find God.”

Thiago becomes upset and asks Laney to never bring up the topic again. Nevertheless, Laney repeatedly encourages Thiago to find religion so Thiago will not “go to Hell like his sister,” despite Thiago’s ongoing requests for Laney to “drop it.” Based on these facts, Laney’s harassing conduct toward Thiago is based on religion.

Example 6: Harassment Based on Religious Accommodation.

Harpreet is an observant Sikh who, because of his religious beliefs, does not cut his beard.

He works as an emergency medical technician (EMT) for an ambulance services provider. Harpreet’semployer has a policy that requires all EMTs to be ableto wear a tight-fitting respirator, which requires a clean-shaven face where the respirator touches theskin.

When Harpreet’s employer learns that he cannot meet the respirator requirement due to his beard, the employer grants Harpreet a religious accommodation by permitting Harpreet to use a loose-fitting powered air purifying respirator (PAPR) instead of a tight-fitting respirator. Harpreet’s supervisor, Jessie, has expressed disdain for Harpreet’s accommodation, including by telling colleagues that PAPRs scare patients and saying, “Anybody who can’t wear a basic respiratorshouldn’t be working here.”

Jessie also refers to Harpreet as “looking unprofessional” or “shabby.”  Based on these facts, Jessie’s harassing conduct istargeted at Harpreet’s religious accommodation and therefore is based on Harpreet’s religion.

Religious harassment also encompasses explicitly or implicitly coercing employees to engage in religious practices at work.

Example 7: Harassment Based on Religious Coercion.

Sandra, an exterminator for a pest control service, is a Christian.

The owner of the pest control service, Fabian, is a self-described “spiritual guru” who believes he is called by the universe to help people transcend the Judeo-Christian belief system.

Fabian regularly makes comments to Sandra denigrating Judeo-Christian tenets; asks Sandra probing questions about her faith; distributes tracts arguing that“traditional religion” is the cause of all ills in modern society; and states a “strong hope” that Sandra wil attend his lunchtime lectures, which consistently focus on Fabian’s religious beliefs.

While Fabian claims he would never require employees to share his beliefs, attend his lectures, or read the material he distributes, he also keeps track of which employees do and do not participate in his religious activities and tends to act with favoritism toward employees who agree with or are receptive to his religious messages.

Sandra feels she must feign interest in Fabian’s beliefs or else she will be subject to ostracism or possibly even termination. Based on these facts, Fabian’s harassing conduct toward Sandra is based on religion.

Religious Accommodation Under Title VII

Many commenters urged the EEOC to address the interplay between an employer’s Title VII obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, and observances and its obligation to prevent and correct unlawful harassment in the workplace.

Most ofthese comments focused on religious expression with regard to pronouns and cited the decision in Meriwether v Hartop, 992 F.3d 492 (6th Cir. 2020), which held that a public university violated a professor’s constitutional right to free speech b yrefusing to accommodate his request not to refer to a transgender student using pronouns consistent with the student’s gender identity, a practice that conflicted with his religious beliefs.


Section IV.C.3.b.ii(b)(7) of the guidance addresses the interaction between statutory harassment prohibitions and Title VII religious accommodation requirements with respect to expression in the workplace.

The Commission revised this section of the guidance by providing more detail about the Title VII precedent as well as new examples. The Commission also added language about the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Groff v DeJoy, 600 U.S. 447 (2023), which clarified the undue hardship standard in Title VII religious accommodation cases.

The Commission acknowledges that in some cases, the application of the EEO statutes enforced by the EEOC may implicate other rights or requirements including those under the United States Constitution, other federal laws such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), or sections 702(a) and 703(e)(2) of Title VII.

When the Commission is presented with individualized facts in an EEOC administrative harassment charge, the agency works with great care to analyze the interaction of Title VII harassment law and the rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.

For further information, see the relevant sections of EEOC’s Compliance Manual Section on Religious Discrimination. EEOC, Compliance Manual Section 12: Religious Discrimination, No. 915.063, at §§ 12-I.C, 12-III.D, and Addendum(2021),

Similarly, the Commission fully recognizes the importance of the constitutionalright to free speech, which was analyzed by the court in Meriwether v. Hartop, supra, a case cited by many commenters.

While the plaintiff in that case did not plead a cause of action under Title VII, if a charge is filed with the EEOC raising similar issues, the EEOC will give the decision appropriate consideration.

The Commission carefully considers the facts presented in EEOC charges alleging a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation for a religious belief, practice, or observance, and takes into consideration the employer, employmentcontext, and other relevant facts.

Although cited in a few comments, the Commission did not cite or address inthe final guidance the decision in Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Corp.,64 F.4th 861 (7th Cir. 2023).

Kluge involves a Title VII religious accommodation claim related to pronoun and first-name use, but the Seventh Circuit vacated and remanded the case after the Supreme Court issued Groff. 2023 WL 4842324(7th Cir. July 28, 2023).

Once the courts have completed adjudication of Kluge,the Commission will give the final decision appropriate consideration whenconsidering charges alleging these issues.

To assist employers with potential defenses, including religious defenses, in the context of individual charge investigations, the Commission is enhancing its administrative procedures and webpages.

Specifically, the Commission will revise materials accompanying the Notice of Charge of Discrimination letter and related webpages to identify how employers can raise defenses in response to a charge. This information will be public and viewable by any employer with questions or concerns about how to raise a defense, including a religious defense, in the event that one of its employees files a charge of discrimination.

The Commission also will update the Respondent Portal to encourage an employer to raise in its position statement (or as soon as possible after a charge is filed) any factual or legal defenses it believes apply, including defenses based on religion.

As appropriate, the Commission will resolve a charge based on the information submitted in support of asserted defenses, including religious defenses, in order to minimize the burden on the employer and the charging party. Regardless of whether the Commission agrees with the employer’s asserted defenses, those defenses are entitled to de novo review by a court in anysubsequent litigation.

Religious Harassment EEOC Guidance

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