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Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

Many early settlers in the United States fled religious persecution in Europe. So, religious freedom is one of the fundamental principles in the founding of the U.S. So much so that the founders included religious freedom in the First Amendment.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits discrimination based on religion by:

  • Private employers
  • State or local governments
  • Educational institutions

States also have labor laws protecting employees from religious discrimination in the workplace. They often offer greater employee protections than federal law. Be sure to check your local and state laws.

How Does Title VII Define Religion?

Title VII defines religion broadly to create a work environment comfortable for everyone. It includes traditional organized religions including:

  • Hinduism
  • Judaism
  • Islam
  • Buddhism
  • Christianity

But even if you don't follow an organized religion, Title VII keeps you from having to spend your days in a hostile work environment. It protects sincerely held religious beliefs even if they are new, uncommon, and only a small number of people practice them.

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

The first step to determine if you have a claim for religious discrimination is to identify the type of discrimination. It might be religious discrimination if your employer took an adverse action against you for a reason based solely on your religion.

Your employer can't make expressing religious beliefs a condition of employment or make employment decisions on the basis of religion. Your employer also cannot discriminate against you because you're married to someone who practices a particular religion. Title VII also protects job applicants.

Workplace discrimination can occur in many ways, including the following:

  • Hiring or terminating employees
  • Compensating, assigning, or classifying employees
  • Promoting, transferring, or laying off employees
  • Testing, recruiting, or harassing employees
  • Failure to provide reasonable accommodation (an accommodation to address religious needs is called a religious accommodation)

Religious Discrimination in the Workplace: Employer Requirements

The next step is identifying what Title VII requires and doesn't require of employers. Title VII requires that employers:

  1. Reasonably accommodate an employee's sincerely held religious beliefs unless
  2. the accommodation would cause an undue hardship on the employer.

Federal and state laws establish certain thresholds for reasonable accommodation. Examples of religious accommodation include the following:

  • Flexible scheduling such as allowing a Jewish employee to have the sabbath off or allowing time off for religious holidays or other religious reasons
  • Job reassignment so an employee doesn't have to do tasks that violate their beliefs
  • Altering dress codes to allow religious clothing such as allowing Muslim women to wear a hijab or Jewish men to wear a yarmulke (You can find guidance for "religious garb and grooming" in the workplace on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) website)
  • Altering grooming requirements to accommodate particular grooming practices
  • Altering work schedules to accommodate daily religious activities such as scheduling breaks so an employee can pray

In most companies, you can contact your human resources department to request a religious accommodation.

Examples of undue hardship include:

  • Violating a seniority system
  • Jeopardizing health and safety
  • Causing a staffing shortage

In the case of a staffing shortage, you employer must allow co-workers to voluntarily swap shifts to accommodate your religious practices.

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

The court starts by asking if the employer acted reasonably. If the company acted unreasonably, the court would ask if accommodating the employee would cause an undue hardship.

Take a case where a company didn't let a Muslim employee wear a head scarf during the holy month of Ramadan. In answering the first question, the court found that the company acted unreasonably by not letting the employee wear a head scarf. As for the second question, the court said wearing a head scarf wouldn't cause undue hardship.

So, in this example, the employer failed to reasonably accommodate the employee's religion.

Title VII only requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees' religious practices. The employer doesn't have to do whatever the employee wants.

For example, several courts have ruled that your employer can prohibit you from displaying religious objects in your cubicle. Another example is that your employer doesn't have to pay you for the days you take off for religious observances.

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

The EEOC has jurisdiction over workplace discrimination. You can file a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC if you think your employer discriminated against you because of your religious beliefs. Generally, you must file your charge within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act.

After you file a charge:

  • The EEOC will notify your employer of the charge.
  • The EEOC will investigate the charge to determine if it should file a claim against the employer.
  • Both you and your employer have the opportunity to settle the charge at any time.

There are two options if the agency determines you have grounds for a religious discrimination claim. The EEOC may suggest mediation or file a claim against the employer in federal court.

You may be able to file a discrimination claim in civil court. But to do so, the EEOC must give you a "right to sue" notice. You have 90 days after the date of the notice to file suit.

Get Legal Help With Your Religious Discrimination in the Workplace Charge

You have options if your employer discriminates against you because of your religion. You may be able to file a discrimination charge with the EEOC. Employment discrimination cases can be complex. A skilled employment law attorney helps to protect employee rights. Consult with an attorney if you need legal advice.

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Next Steps

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

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