The legal definition of what is considered a religion has changed over time. In addition to this, there are differences in the definitions between the different states.
The government regulatory agency that is tasked with upholding federal anti-discrimination laws is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC provides that religion is a moral or ethical belief as to what is right or wrong that is sincerely held by an individual with the strength of traditional religious beliefs.
A court will typically favor a more limited definition of religion than that which is used by the executive branch. When a court is determining whether a belief is religious, it will examine:
- Whether the nature of the belief is consistent with the subject matter which is covered by other religions;
- Whether the religious beliefs are comprehensive as compared to traditional religious; and
- Whether the religion has any formal, external, or surface, or signs which are similar to judicially recognized religions.
Although a religion is defined by how similar it is as compared to a traditionally recognized religion, the judicial inquiry is whether the religious belief is religious in nature and not whether the beliefs are:
- Truthful; or
The goal of determining whether an individual’s practice or belief is religious is to dismiss a frivolous lawsuit. For example, a case where an individual claimed that consuming cat food was central to their faith.
What Counts as a Religious Belief?
Although employers are not permitted to discriminate on the basis of an employee’s religion, what exactly is considered to be a religious belief may not be clear. The EEOC provides guidelines for this issue in Title VII.
Title VII includes a very broad definition of religion. Therefore, the definition includes more traditional religions, such as Islam, Judaism, and Christianity but also includes religious beliefs which may not be common or may not be part of an official church.
Additionally, the guidelines provide that, simply because a certain belief is practiced by a religious group, it does not automatically make the belief a religious belief on its own. Instead, the law, as noted above, recognizes a belief as a religious belief if it is held with the strength of traditional religious views.
For example, individuals who practice Orthodox Judaism are not permitted to work on Saturdays. This is an important part of their religious belief system.
In contrast, Catholic individuals may choose not to work on Saturday due to family obligations. However, this is not mandated by the Catholic religion.
Can an Employer Talk about Their Religious Beliefs with Their Employees?
It is acceptable for employers to express their religious beliefs in the workplace to employees, but with certain limitations. An employer must ensure that their employees understand that they are not required to adhere to or adopt their employer’s religious beliefs in order to keep their jobs or to be promoted.
Another limitation under religion in the workplace laws is that employers cannot continue to proselytize to an employee if the employee requests the employer not to, as this may be considered harassment. Some employers may institute a religion in the workplace policy which may provide instructions for engaging in religious practices at work.
Can an Employer Base Business Objectives upon Religious Principles?
Employers can legally set forth business goals and objectives based on their religious principles because it is not considered discriminatory for an employer to do this. However, employers may not force religious training on any employees.
The employer may only use religious principles to help convey their business objectives.
Can Employees Complain About the Use of Religious Materials?
If an employee complains regarding distributing religious materials at work, an employer cannot fire the employee for lodging the complaint. An employee has the right not to suffer religious harassment in the workplace and may use the rights by complaining to their employer if they feel uncomfortable.
If an employer terminates an employee for complaining about religious harassment, that firing will qualify as a wrongful termination.
What Rules Do Public Employers Have to Follow?
A public employer is required to follow many of the same rules regarding religious expression and religious discrimination as a private employer. For example, public employees are permitted to speak with one another regarding religion and may have religious items in their private work area.
Supervisors, however, are not permitted to use their authority to encourage or discourage any specific religion. Government employees, however, are required to avoid religious expression in their interactions with the public if that expression may be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religion by a government representative, instead of a personal preference.
Do Exceptions Exist for Elected Officials?
An elected official is not considered an employee under federal employment discrimination laws. In certain states as well as with the federal government, elected officials are protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
Where the RFRA applies, an elected official has some protections for their religious expression while in office.
What About Employees of Religious Organizations?
There are certain locations and employers that are covered by the ministerial exception, including places of worship, such as churches and mosques. Generally, religious leaders in places of worship are not permitted to bring federal employment claims against their religious employers due to the separation between church and state.
If the federal government involved itself with the hiring and firing of these types of employees, it would be considered interfering with freedom of religion. Note that this exception is only for actual religious leaders, including:
- Imams; and
This exception does not apply to individuals who work at a place of worship in a non-leadership capacity, for example, receptionists and secretaries.
Which Religion-Affiliated Employers Can Discriminate on the Basis of Religion?
If an employer is categorized as a, “religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society,” they are provided an exception to consider religion in their hiring practices. For example, a Christian church or school may legally hire only Christian teachers and, therefore, discriminate against applicants from other religious backgrounds.
These employers are also permitted to terminate their employees for violating tenets of the religion. However, if an employer has more than 15 total employees, they are not permitted to discriminate based on other protected grounds, for example, race or age.
Not all religion-based employers are allowed to claim an exception to the general rules about religious discrimination. In order for this to apply, the organization’s purpose and character must be primarily religious.
There are several factors that a court may consider when determining whether or not an employer can be considered primarily religious, including:
- Do its articles of incorporation state a religious purpose?;
- Are its day-to-day operations religious in nature?;
- Is it not-for-profit?; and
- Is it affiliated with or supported by a church or other religious organization?.
What Can I Do if I Am Uncomfortable with the Use of Religion at Work?
If you are having issues with the level of religious proselytizing at your workplace and your employer has not responded to your complaints, it may be helpful to consult with a discrimination lawyer. If you have been terminated based on voicing your complaints, you should contact a lawyer as soon as possible.
Your lawyer can determine if you have suffered a wrongful termination or have been a victim of religious discrimination. Your lawyer will also represent you in court should you choose to file a lawsuit.