Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Must you accommodation an employee's religion not to attend DEI training? Believe it or not, it might depend on the training.

"Your respectful workplace training is against my religion; count me out."

That's what one employee told his employer when it tried to compel him to attend its mandatory training about treating all with courtesy and respect.

When the employee learned that one module of the training would include LGBTQI+ issues, he explained to his employer, "This subject matter contradicts my sincerely held religious beliefs." He advised that he would excuse himself during that portion of the training.

In response, the employer explained that:

1.) The training would provide "information on how to treat all customers and employees with courtesy and respect and it includes specific information on how this professionalism applies to LGBT persons";

2.) The mandatory civil rights training explains the anti-discrimination statutes that are applicable to all employees; and

3.) The training would not "require employees to change their personal beliefs, but simply discusses and reinforces the conduct rules requiring employees to treat one another professionally and to prevent and avoid discriminating against or harassing other employees or customers."

Based on that explanation, the employee chose to attend the entirety of the training. Even though he confirmed after the fact that only a few minutes of the training were dedicated to LGBTQI+ issues, which was professional, proportionate, and produced in a manner respectful to him and others with similarly held religious beliefs, the employee nevertheless filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.

The EEOC upheld the right of this employer to mandate its respectful workplace training, concluding that accommodating the employee's request would have constituted an undue hardship on the employer: "If bias or hostility to a religious practice or a religious accommodation provided a defense to a reasonable accommodation claim, Title VII would be at war with itself."

The EEOC added, however, that there exists a key difference between training designed to promote compliance with EEO laws and training that "required or encouraged employees to affirmatively support or agree with conduct that conflicts with their religious beliefs." In the latter case it would be more difficult for an employer to establish an undue hardship defense to a religious accommodation request.

Consider this case a victory for the rights of employers to require workplace training in the face of religious liberty claims but be wary of going too far in your training by requiring such employees to support viewpoints that conflict with their religious beliefs. Train, don't proselytize.