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Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

Religious freedom, protected by the First Amendment, is one of the fundamental principles upon which the United States was founded, grounded by the fact that early settlers had fled religious persecution in Europe. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits private employers, state or local governments and educational institutions from discriminating on the basis of religion. In addition to Title VII, states also have their own labor laws protecting employees from religious discrimination in the workplace. These state labor laws often offer greater employee rights than federal law, so always check your local and state laws.

Religious Discrimination in the Workplace: Do You Have a Claim?

The first step in determining whether an employee has a claim for religious discrimination is to identify the type of discrimination itself. Typical forms of discrimination in the workplace include taking any of the following actions based solely on an employee's religion:

  • Hiring or terminating employees
  • Compensating, assigning, or classifying employees
  • Promoting, transferring, or laying off employees
  • Testing, recruiting, or harassing employees

Religious Discrimination in the Workplace: Employer Requirements

The next step is to identify what Title VII requires, and doesn't require, of employers. Federal and state laws establish certain thresholds for what is considered reasonable with respect to making certain accommodations for employees. Title VII requires that employers:

  1. Reasonably accommodate employees' religious practices, unless
  2. that would cause an undue hardship on the employer. 

Courts balance the reasonableness of the employer's actions versus the hardship caused by complying with the employees' religious practices.

The first question a court must ask is whether the employer acted reasonably. For example, a court found that a company acted unreasonably when it refused to allow a Muslim employee to wear a head scarf during the holy month of Ramadan. Applying the second question, the court couldn't find any undue hardship on the company in allowing the employee to wear a headscarf. Other practices that courts have found unreasonable are failure to give time off for religious observances and refusing to provide time and/or a place to pray.

On the other hand, however, several courts have held that it is reasonable for employers to preclude religious objects being displayed in employee cubicles. The bottom line is that employers are only required to reasonably accommodate employees' religious practices, not to do whatever the employee wants. A typical example of this is when an employer agrees to provide you with a day off for religious observance, but refuses to compensate you for it.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides guidance for "religious garb and grooming" in the workplace.

Religious Discrimination in the Workplace: Filing a Charge with the EEOC

Finally, if you have determined that you were in fact discriminated against on the basis of your religious beliefs (either real or perceived), you should consider filing a charge with the EEOC. Generally, you must file your charge within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act (and federal employees must file charges within their own agency). After a charge is filed, the employer is notified of the action; the EEOC investigates the charge to determine whether a claim against the employer should be filed; and both parties (the employee filing the charge and the employer) have the opportunity to settle the charge at any time.

If the agency determines that there are sufficient grounds for a religious discrimination claim, it will suggest mediation or file a claim against the employer in federal court. You may file a discrimination claim in civil court only if the EEOC has provided you with a "right to sue" notice (in which you have 90 days after the date of the notice).

Get Legal Help With Your Religious Discrimination in the Workplace Charge

If you believe your were treated unfairly in the workplace on the basis of your religious beliefs, you may be able to file a discrimination charge with the EEOC, which will investigate your charge and either sue the employer or give you the option of doing so. These cases can be quite complex and typically benefit from the advice and counsel of a skilled employment law attorney.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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Next Steps

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

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