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Federal Laws Against Religious Discrimination

Religious liberty was central to the Founding Fathers' vision for America, and is the "first freedom" listed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A critical component of religious liberty is the right of people of all faiths to participate fully in the benefits and privileges of society without facing discrimination based on their religion. Following is an introduction to federal laws against religious discrimination, and examples of religious discrimination in a variety of settings.


  • Students form a Bible club and ask for permission to meet in a classroom before school. While other student-created groups are given meeting space, the Bible club is barred because it is religious.
  • Muslim sisters are told by the principal that they cannot wear their hijabs (head-covering scarves) to school due to a no-hats policy, despite the fact that the school has made exceptions to the policy for other students.
  • A teacher berates a student in front of the class because he does not share the faith of the teacher and the rest of the class, leading to repeated harassment of the student by other children.

These examples may be violations of Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits the denial of educational opportunities because of a person's religion. Discrimination can occur in all aspects of education, including curricular and extracurricular activities, the hiring and placement of faculty and administrators, and distribution of school resources.

Employment Discrimination

  • A Jewish instructor for a county job training program is told that he may not wear his yarmulke while teaching classes.
  • A store clerk who is a Seventh-day Adventist is scheduled to work on a Saturday, his Sabbath. Despite the willingness of a coworker with the same level of experience to switch shifts with him, his supervisor tells him that he must work Saturday or be fired.
  • A supervisor passes over a qualified Mormon applicant for a job and is later overheard saying to a colleague that he would not feel comfortable working closely with a Mormon.

These examples may be violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination against persons based on their religion in hiring, promotion, or in the terms and conditions of employment. Employers must reasonably accommodate the religious needs of employees if it would not be an undue burden to do so.


  • An apartment complex meeting room is available for residents to reserve for card games, social activities, and similar events. Management tells resident that she may not use the room to hold a Bible study with friends.
  • A landlord tells a Sikh man wearing a turban that there are no apartments available in a complex, but later the same day the landlord tells other prospective tenants that there are units available.
  • A tenant in public housing places a statue of the Virgin Mary on her balcony. Although other tenants are permitted to place similarly sized decorative objects on their balconies, the property manager says that religious items are not allowed in public housing.

These examples may be violations of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, including refusal to rent or sell to someone based on his or her religion and discrimination based on religion in the terms, conditions, or privileges of a sale or rental.

Public Accommodations and Facilities

  • A town rents its community center to local groups for meetings, but refuses to rent it to a local Hindu group that wants to hold a Divali festival and a group that wants to hold a Christian music concert. The town tells both groups that it has a no-religious-activities policy at the center.
  • Three Buddhist monks go out to a restaurant wearing robes, but the proprietor says "we don't allow religious clothes in here. Come back when you are dressed normally."

These examples may be violations of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 , which prohibits discrimination based on religion in public accommodations, such as restaurants, theaters, and hotels. The section Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on religion in public facilities owned or operated by a state or local government.

Zoning and Landmarking Laws

  • A small church is denied a permit to operate out of a storefront in a commercial zone, even though nonprofit groups including fraternal lodges, a dance studio, and a theater company are permitted in the same zone.
  • A rabbi periodically holds prayer meetings in his home with 10 to 15 people. He is cited for zoning violations for operating a house of worship in a residential zone.
  • A Hindu congregation is denied a building permit despite meeting all zoning requirements for height, setback, and parking. The zoning administrator is overheard making a disparaging remark about Hindus.

These examples may be violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), which protects individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from zoning and landmarking laws that substantially burden religious exercise without a compelling government justification. RLUIPA also bars the government from applying zoning and landmarking laws in a manner that discriminates against particular religions, treats religious assemblies or institutions on less than equal terms than nonreligious assemblies or institutions, or unreasonably excludes houses of worship from a jurisdiction.

Religious Exercise of Institutionalized Persons

  • A prison makes no provision for kosher meals, despite the repeated requests of three Jewish prisoners who have identified a low-cost provider of such meals.
  • Catholic prisoners seek space in a prison chapel on Sunday and permission for a volunteer priest to come in to say Mass, but are told that they should attend the nondenominational Christian service run by the prison's Protestant chaplain.
  • A Native American prisoner has his medicine bag confiscated during intake to a prison, although other prisoners are permitted to keep rosary beads, crosses, and other physically equivalent small religious items.

RLUIPA also contains a provision protecting the religious exercise of inmates and other persons confined to certain institutions. RLUIPA requires that actions by officials which impose a substantial burden on the institutionalized person's religious exercise must be justified by a compelling government interest and must be the least restrictive means available to achieve that interest.

Crimes Against Persons and Property

  • A mosque is spray-painted with anti-Muslim graffiti.
  • Shortly after a Jewish family moves into a neighborhood, a brick painted with a swastika is thrown through their window.
  • A Sikh man wearing a turban goes to a restaurant, but a group of teenagers loitering in front tells him that if he tries to enter wearing the turban they will beat him up.
  • Three white men intentionally set fire to an African Methodist Episcopal church on a Saturday night. One of the men later is overheard in a bar laughing about the fire and making racial remarks.

These examples may be criminal violations of federal civil rights laws. It is a federal crime to injure, threaten, or intimidate people because of their religion in order to interfere with their exercise of federally guaranteed rights, such as the following:

  • The purchase or rental of a home
  • Patronage of public accommodations
  • Use of public parks and other facilities
  • Attendance at a school or college
  • Participation in government programs

Federal law also criminalizes arson and vandalism against houses of worship committed either because of the race or ethnicity of the group using the property or, in certain circumstances, because of the religious nature of the property.

Get Professional Legal Help

Religious discrimination destroys very meaningful experiences for many people because it interferes with deep beliefs and freedoms. Have you been harassed while wearing religious garb or been denied services because of your religion? If you have, then get professional help from an experienced discrimination specialist who knows about the law and can help with a possible claim.

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