Employer Use of Religion

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Most Common Employment Law Issues:

Can an Employer Talk about Their Religious Beliefs with Their Employees?

It is acceptable for an employer to express their religious beliefs in the workplace to an employee, but only within certain limits. The employer must make sure that their employees understand that they do not have to adopt their employer's religious beliefs in order keep their jobs or be promoted. Another limit is that an employer cannot keep proselytizing to an employee if the employee requests the employer not to, as this could be considered harassment.

Can an Employer Base Business Objectives upon Religious Principles?

An employer can legally set forth business goals and objectives on their religious principles because it is not considered discriminatory for an employer to do this. However, an employer may not force religious training on any employee. The employer may only use religious principles to help convey a business objective

Can Employees Complain about the Use of Religious Materials?

If an employee complains about the use of the material, the employer cannot fire the employee for lodging the complaint. Employees have a right not to suffer through religious harassment in the workplace, and may utilize these rights by complaining to an employer if they feel uncomfortable. If an employer fires an employee for complaining about the religious harassment, that firing qualifies as wrongful termination.

What Rules Do Public Employers Have to Follow?

Public employers have to follow the many of the same rules about religious expression as private employers do. For example, public employees can speak to each other about religion or have a religious item in their private work area, but supervisors must not use their authority to encourage or discourage any specific religion. However, government employees must also avoid religious expression in their interactions with the public if the expression may be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religion by a government representative, rather than a personal preference.

Do Exceptions Exist for Elected Officials?

Elected officials are not considered “employees” under federal employment discrimination laws. In some states and in the federal government, they are protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Where the RFRA applies, elected officials have some protection for their religious expression while in office.  

What About Employees of Religious Organizations?

Places of worship, such as churches and mosques, benefit from a “ministerial exception.” In general, religious leaders in places of worship cannot bring federal employment claims against their religious employers due to the separation between church and state. If the federal government became involved with the hiring and firing of these employees, it would be interfering with freedom of religion. Note that this exception is only for actual religious leaders, such as priests, imams, and rabbis, and not for individuals who work at a place of worship in a non-leadership capacity, such as receptionists and secretaries.

Which Religion-Affiliated Employers Can Discriminate on the Basis of Religion?

If an employer is a “religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society,” they are allowed an exception to consider religion in their hiring practices. For example, a Christian church or school may legally choose to hire only Christian teachers and thus discriminate against applicants from other religious backgrounds. These employers may also fire their employees for violating tenets of the religion. However, if the employer has more than 15 total employees, they may not discriminate based on other protected grounds, such as race or age.

Not all religion-friendly employers can claim an exception to the general rules about religious discrimination. The purpose and character of the organization must be primarily religious. Several factors may be considered when determining whether or not an employer can be considered primarily religious, including:

What Can I Do If I Am Uncomfortable with the Use of Religion at Work?

If you have complained to your employer about being uncomfortable with the level of religious proselytizing that goes on in the workplace and your employer does not respond or, even worse, terminates your employment, you may be a victim of religious discrimination. An employment attorney can help you determine if you have a case against your employer. They can also can represent you in court should you chose to sue.

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Last Modified: 10-05-2015 04:50 AM PDT

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