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Avoiding Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

The right to religious observance is one of the most cherished rights in America. It is also one of the most difficult to integrate into the workplace.

Everyone has their own sincerely held religious beliefs. With the incredible diversity in the American workplace, having one or more religions at odds is likely. Federal and state laws require employers to accommodate religious beliefs, but not to the point of undue hardship on business operations.

This article explains some requirements for religious accommodations in the workplace and how small business owners can avoid religious discrimination among their employees.

Religion, Employment, and Anti-Discrimination Laws

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating based on race, national origin, gender, or religious expression. Other federal and state laws have expanded these protections to additional protected classes, such as sexual orientation. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces laws against discrimination in the workplace.

Religious expression may include:

  • Styles of dress
  • Hair or head coverings
  • Dietary restrictions
  • Holidays observances

Any sincerely held religious, moral, or ethical belief may fall under the protection of religious expression.

Employment discrimination falls into two general categories:

  • Disparate intent discrimination
  • Disparate impact discrimination

Both are discussed in more detail below.

Disparate Intent Discrimination

Disparate intent is intentionally excluding someone based on religion or other protected status. For example, refusing to hire people of a certain religion is disparate intent discrimination. A policy requiring workers to work weekends is less obvious, but it can exclude or burden Jewish and Christian employees. This makes the policy discriminatory.

However, disparate intent differs from bona fide occupational qualification(BFOQ). An employer may use a BFOQ to include members of a religion but not to exclude them. For instance, for religious studies classes, a religious school can limit teachers to only members of the religion. The school may not discriminate in other areas, such as refusing to hire a janitor based on their race.

Disparate Impact Discrimination

Disparate impact occurs when a rule intended to treat everyone equally affects one religious group more than others. The best example is office dress codes. A policy that bans hats indoors might conflict with religious practices that require head coverings.

Hostile Work Environment and Company Culture

The EEOC defines a hostile work environment as:

  • Intimidating, abusive, or offensive conduct
  • An environment where a reasonable person would find it impossible to continue working

A single comment does not create a hostile work environment. The behavior must be ongoing or continue after the victim has asked that the conduct stop.

An employer may be liable for creating a hostile work environment if they allow harassing behavior to continue. Enabling harassment by ignoring or downplaying employee complaints also creates liability. Statements like, “That's how we do things around here," or “It was just a joke," reinforce a company culture of harassment. This could lead to liability in the event of an EEOC report.

Periods of Heightened Awareness

During periods of heightened awareness, such as the aftermath of an attack or conflict in regions overseas, tensions can run high. The EEOC recommends that employers be proactive in these cases. They should review all anti-discrimination policies with their employees and provide training on religious discrimination and other types of harassment.

Reasonable Accommodations for Religious Beliefs

Federal discrimination law applies to employers with 15 or more employees. These covered employers must discuss reasonable religious accommodations for an employee upon request.

Employers are not required to make accommodations that cause undue hardships to their business. However, they must work with the employee to find other solutions. These are some situations a business owner may encounter:

  • Many Muslim women wear a hijab or headscarf. These head coverings are often worn in many different colors. A possible accommodation is to ask the employee to wear company colors.
  • Many religions, including Judaism, Rastafarianism, and Islam, require male adherents to keep their hair long or refrain from cutting their beards. These practices generally do not prevent someone from wearing the required safety equipment, but there may be exemptions available from OSHA.
  • Adherents of some religions, such as Sikhs, Hindus, or Buddhists, may have religious garb. Employers must accommodate these items as they do other religious items, such as a crucifix or Star of David.

Employers are not required to put one employee's religious beliefs above others. For example, if an employee claims that due to their religion they can't work with someone of a particular sexual orientation, the employer is not required to fire the religious person's co-worker.

Working With Workplace Diversity

The threshold for undue hardship depends on the circumstances of the workplace. In a small business, one worker who cannot work Saturdays may be too burdensome for the company.

However, most businesses do not face that problem. Small business owners should consider their employees' rights and workplace needs. For instance, several employees with religious holidays could stagger work days. Other options include allowing co-workers to swap days off.

Religious Beliefs and Safety Concerns

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides regulations about safety equipment. Some religious exemptions exist, but OSHA guidance has declined to provide exemptions in some cases.

For example, OSHA granted a religious exemption from requiring hard hats on construction sites. Employers must advise workers who request such an exemption about the benefits of wearing hard hats and the potential risks of not doing so.

However, OSHA declined to provide an exemption for demand-valve respirators. These are close-fitting masks used in hazardous closed-space environments. A Sikh construction union, whose workers may not shave their beards, could not use demand-valve respirators.

OSHA's rationale was that masks must fit tightly to protect workers from the hazardous environment. Other workers would be at risk if a rescue were necessary to save the first worker's life, so the worker's religious preference did not only affect that worker.

Business owners and human resources departments can use this as a guideline for accommodations. An accommodation that may harm other employees crosses the threshold of undue hardship. Schedule changes or clothing substitutions do not affect other workers.

Additional Guidance and Support

The EEOC provides extensive guidance for small business owners. Small businesses, non-profits, and even faith-based organizations can use these guidelines to prevent workplace discrimination.

Employers: Get Legal Help With Religious Accommodations

Religion and religious accommodation remain a contentious subject in the workplace today. If you're facing issues with accommodation or harassment, contact a business law attorney in your area. They will help review your options and the best course of action.

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