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Religion in the Workplace

Religious diversity is increasing in the U.S. population and workforce. Workplace harassment and employment discrimination have also risen. The years 1997-2015 saw a two-fold increase in workplace complaints involving religion.

Take one high-profile case from 2015 as an example. In this case, Abercrombie & Fitch refused to hire a Muslim applicant. The company claimed her headscarf/hijab conflicted with their dress code. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed on behalf of the applicant, and the suit alleged discrimination. The applicant had not requested an accommodation for her religious dress code.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that Abercrombie violated anti-discrimination laws. This was because the company should have provided accommodations. The absence of an applicant's request was insufficient to relieve Abercrombie of liability.

Read on to understand the protections workers have under the law.

What Is Religious Discrimination?

Most religious discrimination cases against businesses arise under federal or state statutes. This is because the First Amendment only protects against discrimination by the government. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion, including but not limited to:
    • Christianity
    • Judaism
    • Buddhism
    • Islam
    • Hinduism
  • Sex
  • National origin

Under the Act, private businesses with at least 15 employees cannot:

  • Discriminate based on religious beliefs or practices in any aspect of employment
  • Harass based on religious beliefs or practices
  • Deny reasonable religious accommodations unless it would cause an undue burden
  • Retaliate against individuals engaging in protected activities (such as filing complaints)

Federal laws against religious discrimination also protect individuals with non-traditional beliefs or practices. This includes those with atheistic views, as long as their views are sincerely held. Taking an employee's word regarding their belief system is usually good practice.

What Is Religious Accommodation?

Religious accommodation is a workplace change for workers to practice religion. An accommodation becomes necessary when the following interferes with a worker's employment:

  • Religious beliefs
  • Religious observances
  • Religious practices

An employer typically cannot interfere with an employee's religious practices. An exception may be granted if an employer can prove they would sustain undue hardship. Accommodations can pertain to an employee's religious expression. They can also involve an employee's schedule and religious garb.

When Are Employers Liable for Religious Discrimination?

Employers are liable for religious discrimination if it creates a hostile work environment. In these cases, businesses can limit or avoid liability if:

  • They exercise reasonable care to prevent or correct harassing behavior promptly
  • The claimant unreasonably failed to take advantage of preventive or corrective opportunities

Intervene quickly to address religious discrimination or harassment in the workplace. Sometimes, waiting for a complaint to take action may be too late. This is especially true if the conduct has created a hostile work environment.

Reasonable Accommodations and Undue Hardship

Employers must provide reasonable accommodations for sincerely held religious beliefs or non-beliefs. This is required by federal law. Common types of accommodations include:

  • Revising schedules or using other employees as voluntary substitutes
  • Revising an employee's tasks
  • Lateral transfers
  • Exceptions to dress and grooming rules
  • Allowing work facilities to be used for religious observances

Employers don't need to provide reasonable accommodations if it would cause undue hardship. Undue hardship is when the accommodation would impose more than a de minimis cost. This is a fact-specific determination made on a case-by-case basis. But it can be based on the direct monetary costs of an accommodation and its burden on a business. Courts will typically find undue hardship where religious accommodations:

  • Diminish the efficiency of other employees
  • Create an imbalance of hazardous or burdensome work in the workplace
  • Infringe on other employees' job rights or benefits
  • Impair workplace safety

Need to File an Employment Action? Contact an Attorney Today

Neither your employers nor coworkers can discriminate against you on the basis of religion. An employee's religious beliefs should always be protected. No religious group should face adverse employment decisions because of their beliefs. Consider working with an employment law attorney in your area for more information.

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Contact a qualified employment discrimination attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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