When religion and DEI training collide

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Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, which clarified that Title VII’s protections against discrimination “based on … sex” included sexual orientation and gender identity, an increasing area of legal questions have arisen regarding the conflicts between an LGBTQ+ employee’s rights and another employee’s right (in certain circumstances) to religious accommodation. These questions have continued to increase after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Groff v. DeJoy, which increased employers’ obligations to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs.

With questions swirling regarding the perception of conflicting rights under Title VII between employees, sometimes in the context of diversity, equity and inclusion training, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s recent decision in Barrett v. Vilsack allowed the EEOC to weigh in on religious accommodation requests in the context of LGBTQ+ discrimination and harassment prevention. Its decision could have a significant impact on how all employers address this developing and complex intersection of the law.

Religious discrimination claim arises from mandatory DEI training session

In Barrett v. Vilsack, an engineer employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture complained of religious discrimination in the workplace. Specifically, as part of a department-wide training requirement, the engineer was told to attend a mandatory training session covering various issues including, among others, discrimination and harassment toward members of the LGBTQ+ community.

When told of the mandatory training, the engineer requested the ability to exit the training session during any portions relating to LGBTQ+ issues as it would conflict with his sincerely held religious beliefs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture denied the engineer’s request and threatened him with discipline if he failed to attend any portion of the training.

After being required to attend the training session in its entirety, the engineer filed a complaint alleging that the U.S. Department of Agriculture violated Title VII by failing to provide him a religious accommodation.

EEOC rejects discrimination complaint

The EEOC ultimately rejected the engineer’s complaint for two separate and independent reasons:

  • First, the engineer failed to explain how his religion conflicted with his attendance at the training session. The EEOC noted that the training session’s PowerPoint only contained a few slides referencing LGBTQ+ matters and the engineer himself admitted these portions were professional and respectful. The EEOC ultimately found that the training did not require the engineer to change his beliefs, nor did it attempt to “modify, criticize, or pressure him to change his religious observance or practice – whether before, during, or after the training.”
  • Second, the EEOC determined that allowing the engineer to exit the training session posed an undue burden on the employer. According to the EEOC, employers can require employees to attend these types of training sessions because “Title VII requires employers to take steps to prevent discriminatory harassment, and they may be held liable if they fail to do so.”

Although the Barrett v. Vilsack decision is not binding on federal courts, it marks the first significant insight into how the EEOC views the intersection of religious accommodation requests and LGBTQ+ discrimination and harassment matters. It remains to be seen how the EEOC will analyze accommodation requests that expand beyond training sessions, but this decision could have a wide-reaching effect on the EEOC’s enforcement policies moving forward.

Contact a McAfee & Taft Labor & Employment Group attorney if you, as an employer, have questions or need assistance implementing discrimination and harassment training, handling religious accommodation requests from employees, and/or addressing claims LGBTQ+ discrimination and harassment.

  • Barrett V. v. Dep’t of Agriculture, EEOC Appeal No. 2019005478 (March 7, 2024)