Religion in the Workplace

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What Is Religious Belief Discrimination?

Religious belief discrimination is unequal treatment based on religion, including religious practices or observance. Religious discrimination includes unequal treatment because of religion, neutral rules which have an adverse effect on those with religious beliefs, and harassment based on religion. Harassment includes creating or maintaining a hostile work environment against religion.

Like disability discrimination, an employer’s failure to reasonably accommodate a religious practice is considered discrimination. 

Religious discrimination can also include treating someone differently because that person is associated with an individual of a religion or because of his or her connection with a religious organization.

Note that both labor unions and employers are covered by religious discrimination laws.

What Is a Religion?

The legal definition of religion has changed over time and there are still differences between states. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the regulatory agency charged with upholding the federal government’s anti-discrimination laws, defines religion as moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right or wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious beliefs.

Courts often favor a more limited definition than the one utilized by the executive branch. The most popular judicial examination of whether a belief is religious examines whether the nature of the belief is consistent with the subject matter covered by other religions, whether the religious beliefs are comprehensive compared to traditional religions and whether the religion has any formal, external or surface signs that are similar to judicially recognized religions.

Although religions are defined by how similar they are compared to “traditionally” recognized religions, the judicial inquiry is whether the religious beliefs are religious in nature, not whether they are real, truthful or orthodox. The goal of determining whether a belief or practice is religious is to toss out frivolous lawsuits, such as the case of the man who claimed that eating cat food was central to his faith.

What Religious Practices do Employers Have to Honor?

To respect the religious practices of an employee within the bounds of the law, an employer must reasonably accommodate the employee's practices.  Some common examples of religious practices in the workplace that an employer must accommodate are:

What Defenses Do Employers Have To Religious Discrimination Claims?

Employers have a number of defenses if accused of religious belief discrimination. They include, but are not limited to:

What If My Employer Does Not Allow Me to Practice My Religion at Work?

If your employer forbids you from observing your religion at work, you may be the victim of religious discrimination.  An experienced employment lawyer can help you determine whether your employer is obligated to allow your religious practice at work.  An employment lawyer can also help you seek damages if you chose to sue for religious discrimination.

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Last Modified: 05-01-2013 11:51 AM PDT

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