Specifically, Title VII makes it illegal for employers to:

  1. [f]ail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms or conditions, or privileges of employment, because of that individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or

  2. limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.11

The statute defines employers broadly as "a person, engaged in an industry affecting commerce, who has at least 15 employees for 20 weeks during the current or preceding calendar year."12 Given the expansive nature of the definition, few businesses escape classification as an employer subject to Title VII's proscriptions.

Title VII imposes similar prohibitions on labor organizations, defining them just as broadly13 and making it illegal for them to:

  1. [E]xclude or to expel from membership, or otherwise discriminate against, any individual because of his or her race, color, religion, sex, or national origin;

  2. [L]imit, segregate, or classify membership or applications for membership, or to classify or fail or refuse to refer for employment any individual, in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities, or would limit such employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee or as an applicant for employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or

  3. [C]ause or attempt to cause an employer to discriminate against an individual in violation of this section.14

While race, color, sex, and national origin are somewhat concrete concepts, "religion" was not defined in this early version of Title VII. Rather than define the scope of its mandate in the statute itself, Congress created a new federal agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which was charged with administration and enforcement of Title VII's provisions.

The EEOC offered some early, if ambiguous, guidance as to employers' duties under the law. The commission's guidelines not only directed employers to avoid using religion as a decision-making factor, but also established an affirmative duty to accommodate the religious needs of employees to the extent possible without "serious inconvenience to the conduct of the business."15

The EEOC subsequently refined this duty by linking religious discrimination to an employer's failure to make "reasonable accommodations" to an employee's religious beliefs and practices that did not amount to an "undue hardship" on the business. The Commission's guidelines were not readily adopted by the courts16 and it would be eight years before Congress would amend Title VII to include a definition of "religion."

Congress finally provided a definition of "religion" with the passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity act of 1972,17 where "religion" was defined to include "all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless the employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee's or prospective employee's religious observance without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business."18

The statutory duty for employers and unions to accommodate an expansive definition of "religion," coupled with the fact that such accommodation could not place "undue hardship" on the employer's business, would eventually become the standard by which both an employer and a union would be judged in cases where an employee alleges some form of religious discrimination.19