The Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects American citizens from religious-based discrimination by a government employer. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also forbids religious discrimination by private employers.

Muslims practice ritual prayer and many wear specific kinds of clothing as part of their faith. Under Title VII, § 701(j), employers have a duty to make reasonable accommodations for these practices. Employers do not need to completely adopt the employee’s proposed solutions, nor conform to every religious need of a devout employee, but they do need to show that some efforts have been made to allow their employee to practice his or her faith at work.

What Constitutes an Employment Discrimination Claim?

There are many kinds of religious-based employment discrimination. An individual or group claim can be made for disparate treatment if there is adequate proof of “facial discrimination.”  For example, if a company uses exclusionary language such as “men only” in an employment posting, a Disparate Treatment claim could be alleged.  A pattern of systemic discrimination must be proved for these claims to be successful. 

More common are individual or group claims for disparate impact or harassment. Title VII bans harassment with a “hostile environment” clause. Even if the employer behavior doesn’t cause injury to the religious employee, it is still illegal if it detracts from job performance, blocks promotions, or encourages the employee to leave the company.

Harassment can be direct or vicarious; supervisors can harass employees either directly or through subordinates. Failure to adequately respond to complaints can be considered negligence, leaving employers liable for a discrimination claim.

What Defenses Does an Employer Have?

To successfully defend against a Muslim employment discrimination claim, employers must show that either that they had motives other than discrimination for their actions, or that their actions were legal under certain mandated employer protection clauses.

  • Mixed Motive: An employer can show that the employee or employees filing the claim were released from employment because of poor job performance rather than the alleged religious discrimination. This defense is controversial and may not apply in all jurisdictions.
  • Reasonable Care: Employers need to make reasonable accommodations to allow employees to practice their religion, but Title VII 701(j) states that the employer doesn’t need to fully meet those needs. The employer is not required to incur more than minimal costs, for example.
  • Bona Fide Occupation Qualification: Religious institutions are legally permitted to make hiring decisions based on a candidate’s religious belief and practice.
  • Waivers: The employer can prove that the employee waived rights to a discrimination claim and left the company voluntarily.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Employment discrimination claims are often civil litigation battles that can be very drawn out and costly for both sides. An employment lawyer is necessary to craft a defense specific to the circumstances of an individual case.