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Can Religious Expression in the Workplace Be Religious Harassment?

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

Religious discrimination in the workplace, especially around the holiday season, can be a contentious issue. While Christmas trees still light up city centers across the nation, many workplaces have discontinued the practice because the tree is a symbol for a religious holiday. Christmas parties are now called holiday parties for the same reason. Although celebrating a religious holiday may not seem to discriminate against anyone on first blush, it can easily become religious harassment or even a discriminatory event.

Religious discrimination and harassment in the workplace is a sensitive matter. While employers are required to accommodate the religious expression of employees, that accommodation has limits. Generally, the limit is where religious expression becomes religious harassment.

What Must Be Accommodated

While employers cannot treat employees differently because of their religious beliefs, if an employee requests an accommodation of their religious beliefs, employers generally must allow the accommodation if it is reasonable. However, employers should never assume an employee needs a particular accommodation. Examples of accommodations that usually must be upheld include, but are not limited to:

  • Taking prayer breaks
  • Time off for holidays
  • Allowing religious clothing (such as a hijab)

Typically, so long as the requested accommodation does not interfere with the business operations or the safety of employees, clients or customers, the accommodation will be viewed as reasonable, and therefore should be accommodated.

However, an employee requesting to wear loose fitting garments on a machine assembly line will likely have their request reasonably denied for safety reasons. If an accommodation presents an undue burden or hardship on the employer, they will likely be able to refuse the accommodation. Note that the undue burden threshold is relative to an employer's resources.

When Religious Expression Goes Too Far

One of the hallmarks of anti-discrimination law is its power to remedy and prevent workplace discrimination. However, discrimination is not simply a black and white issue. What one person finds discriminatory or harassing, another person may view as innocent. This makes assessing when religious expression should be permitted rather difficult, yet determining what is religious harassment is rather simple.

Basically, religious harassment is any religious expression that is unwelcome by an employee, however to be actionable in a civil suit, it requires more. According to the EEOC, they explain that for unwelcome religious expression to make up the basis of religious harassment, the victim must be:

... subjected to unwelcome statements or conduct that is based on religion and is so severe or pervasive that the individual being harassed reasonably finds the work environment to be hostile or abusive

When an employee reports that another employee's religious expression was unwelcome to them, the employer should take steps to stop the employee making the religious expression toward the reporting employee. Failing to do so could leave the employer liable for religious harassment if the expression continues, and the victim feels that the work environment is abusive or hostile as a result. Note that the standard is subjective, meaning from the viewpoint of the victim.

Intentional Discrimination and Religion

Intentional discrimination (taking actions against an employee based on religious beliefs) and disparate impact discrimination (when employees of a particular religious group are particularly affected by an employment policy or practice) can be premised on religion as well.

If you're running a business and need help determining what your obligations are under the law to prevent religious harassment, you should contact a well rounded, experienced business attorney.

If you are concerned about religious harassment or discrimination issues in your business, you may wish to contact a local civil rights attorney and/or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for guidance.

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