EEOC Provides Updated Guidance on Conflict Between Diversity Training and Religious Beliefs

Brian Garrett headshot
Brian B. Garrett
Director, Litigation Department and Chair, Education Law Practice Group
Published: New Hampshire Business Review
May 10, 2024

In a recent opinion issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency provided further guidance on how employers can manage employee requests to be exempted from diversity trainings on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs.  When deliberating an employee’s religious exemption request, employers can consider whether the religious belief is actually in conflict with the workplace training or program.  Further, when demonstrating that the exemption would place an undue burden on the employer, the employer can point not only to financial costs associated with the request, but also how the exemption may impact rights and interests protected by other non-discrimination laws.

In the opinion in Barrett v. Vilsack, the EEOC affirmed a federal agency’s dismissal of an employee’s religious discrimination claim against the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Temple, Texas.  The NRCS instituted a mandatory civil rights training program to guide employees on how to treat customers and other employees with dignity and respect.  The complainant sought to be excluded from the portion of the training regarding LGBTQI+ community members on the grounds that it conflicted with his Roman Catholic beliefs.  The NRCS denied the request, and the complainant filed an EEOC complaint under Title VII, which protects employees from religious discrimination in employment.

Through an appeals process applicable to federal agencies, the EEOC concluded that the NRCS did not violate the complainant’s rights.  Under Title VII, when an employee notifies an employer of a sincere religious belief that conflicts with a workplace rule, policy, or program, the employer is obligated to engage in an interactive process to determine if it can provide a reasonable accommodation to the employee without incurring undue hardship.  In Barrett, the EEOC’s decision was based on several specific facts that undermined the complainant’s claim—but, in general, the EEOC held the following:

  • A bare assertion of a conflict with religious beliefs is insufficient to raise a failure to accommodate claim. Accordingly, when engaging in an interactive process with an employee, employers can consider whether the employee has identified an actual conflict with their sincerely held religious beliefs.
  • In asserting that an exemption would create an undue burden, the employer need not rely solely on financial costs, but also on the employer’s legal obligation to comply with other laws. In Barrett, an exemption would have interfered with the NRSC’s efforts to meet its legal obligations under equal employment opportunity laws such as Title VII, which requires employers to take affirmative steps to prevent discriminatory harassment in the workplace.
  • The content of the underlying training is important in determining the imposition on an employee’s religious beliefs. In Barrett, the NRSC’s training was specifically developed to promote compliance with equal employment laws and the NRSC’s standards of conduct for interacting with customers and coworkers.  It did not, importantly, require the employee to forsake any religious beliefs or adopt values that contracted his religious beliefs.

While the EEOC’s opinion is not binding precedent on private employers, it provides persuasive guidance that can be adopted by courts in future discrimination claims against private employers.  Therefore, all employers should be mindful of the following when developing diversity training programs and responding to potential religious exemptions:

  • Employers should develop training programs to ensure that they do not undermine or interfere with an employee’s religious practices. The NRSC’s actual training program was referred to and reviewed by the EEOC in Barrett – so employers should curate such programs and materials with the foresight that they may be reviewed by an agency or court in the future.  Those programs should reference legal obligations as well as employer policies relating to anti-discrimination and anti-harassment.
  • When considering an accommodations request on the basis of a religious belief, an employer should ask the employee to clearly articulate how, exactly, the training program conflicts with the employee’s beliefs. A standardized and well-drafted accommodation request form can aid employers in this process.
  • Employers should understand their legal requirements when developing training programs and weigh those requirements against potential exemption requests. It is possible that such obligations can impact an undue burden analysis when considering a religious exemption request.

Workplace accommodations for religious beliefs will likely continue to be tested in courts over the coming years.  Again, while the EEOC ruling in Barrett is not binding on private employers, it is helpful guidance in better understanding the legal contours of religious exemption requests.  Employers should pay close attention to this evolving area of the law.