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Religious Discrimination

The federal government protects against discrimination on the basis of religion, race, sex, age, and disability. As long as an employee's religious practices do not interfere with their duties, employers can't base conditions of employment on an employee's religion. So, an employer can't base the following on a person's religion:

  • Hiring
  • Firing
  • Promotion
  • Compensation decisions

Determining whether a company bases its decision on an employee's religious beliefs is challenging. Proper education and preparation can help you spot potential violations of employment discrimination laws. Companies can't tolerate religious harassment in the workplace.

Click through the articles in this section to learn all about religious discrimination in the workplace.

Religion in the Workplace

The First Amendment provides two freedoms about religion. Those are freedom from government-imposed religion and the right to practice any religion. Neither of these rights directly relates to private employers. But, they remain subject to state and federal laws that ban religious discrimination in employment.

These laws offer protection. They seek to protect the right of workers to hold religious beliefs and to keep their religious practices. Practices may include:

  • Religious garments or hairstyles
  • Avoidance of particular speech or behavior
  • Observing religious holidays

The statute that most commonly protects workers' rights from discrimination due to their religion is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII bans private employers from discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, or religion. State laws also frequently forbid religious discrimination. Interpreting these laws, courts have recognized various forms of banned discrimination.

  • Disparate treatment discrimination — An overt form of discrimination where workers face different treatment because of their religion. A religious business may be allowed to require employees to adhere to a specific faith, but courts will closely examine the legitimacy of the requirement.
  • Disparate impact discrimination — A more subtle form of discrimination in which there is no express policy of discrimination, but policy functions to effectively discriminate against a religion. A rule forbidding men from wearing a head covering at work could conflict with a religion, such as the Sikh religion, that requires adherents to cover their heads in public.
  • Hostile work environment discrimination — When the employer maintains or allows a work environment where harassment, abuse, or employee intimidation happens. A simple disagreement wouldn't typically create a hostile work environment. Severe insults, threats, or continuing words and actions intended to intimidate or harass an employee for their religious faith would. Employers are responsible if they knew or should have known of the harassment.

Religious Harassment in the Workplace

It's illegal to harass a person because of their religion. Simple teasing, offhand comments, or non-serious isolated incidents aren't illegal. But harassment is unlawful when it:

  • Is so frequent that it creates a hostile work environment
  • Results in an offensive work environment
  • Results in an adverse employment decision

When an employment action results in the person being fired or demoted, this is harassment. The harasser can be:

  • The person's supervisor
  • Another supervisor
  • A co-worker
  • Someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client, customer, or contractor

Along with harassment, Title VII bans workplace or job segregation based on religion. This includes assigning an employee to a non-customer contact position due to actual or feared customer preference.

Duty to Accommodate an Employee's Religion

An employer must accommodate the religious beliefs of its employees. As with other employer accommodations, this is subject to some limitations. Accommodations that would be unduly burdensome for the employer are generally not required.

Limits to Providing Reasonable Accommodations

An employer's business must make reasonable religious accommodations for sincerely held religious beliefs. But, the employer's duty to allow for religious activity is not without limits.

The employer doesn't have to provide accommodation if it creates an undue hardship. Undue hardship is determined on a case-by-case basis. An accommodation may create an undue hardship if it is:

  • Too costly
  • Compromises workplace safety
  • Decreases workplace efficiency in a meaningful way
  • Infringes on the rights of co-workers
  • Requires job reassignments that cause other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work

For example, asking to trade shifts to avoid working on a religious holiday is reasonable. But requesting a holy month off of work each year is likely unduly burdensome.

Limitations that affect the ability to conduct business are also likely unduly burdensome. Undue hardship based on costs requires the employer to show more than a minimal impact on cost.

What Is a Religious Accommodation?

A religious accommodation is any adjustment to the work environment that will allow an employee or applicant to practice an organized religion. Allowing religious accommodations provides religious freedom and religious observance.

The need for religious accommodation may require employment action where a person's particular religion, religious beliefs, practices, or observances conflict with a specific task or application process.

Examples of Accommodation Requests

Accommodation requests often relate to work schedules, dress and grooming, or religious expression in the workplace. The employer must grant the accommodation if it would not impose an undue hardship. Examples include:

  • A Muslim requesting time to pray, which may require a small amount of flexible scheduling
  • Allowance of particular grooming practices or dress code
  • Request to wear a headscarf, hijab, yarmulke, or other types of religious dress where substitutions do not create an undue hardship or impact workplace safety

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offers guidance on religious accommodations. It also gives information on other employment law issues.

Common Religious Accommodations

Religious accommodations may require lateral transfers or more flexible work schedules. Examples of common religious accommodations include:

  • Flexible scheduling
  • Voluntary shift substitutions
  • Voluntary job swaps
  • Job reassignments
  • Modifications to workplace policies
  • Modifications to workplace practices

Employees requiring an accommodation should tell their supervisors of the conflict between their religious needs and work environment or duties. If someone violates your civil rights at work, contact a civil rights attorney or employment law attorney.

Learn About Religious Discrimination

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