Religion in the Workplace

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 What is Religious Belief Discrimination?

Religious belief discrimination involves unequal treatment which is based upon religion and may include religious practices or observances. Religious discrimination may include:

  • Unequal treatment which is due to an individual’s religion;
  • Neutral rules which have an adverse effect upon individuals with religious beliefs; and
  • Harassment which is based on religion.

Harassment may include creating or maintaining a hostile work environment against religion or religious beliefs. Similar to disability discrimination, if an employer fails to reasonably accommodate a religious practice, it is considered discrimination.

Religious discrimination may also include treating an individual different because that individuals is associated with an individual of a certain religion or because of their connection with a certain religious organization.

It is important to note that both employers and labor unions are covered by religious discrimination laws.

What is a Religion?

The legal definition of a religion has changed over time. There are also differences in the definition between different states.

The regulatory agency which is charged with upholding the federal government’s anti-discrimination laws, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), provides a definition of religion as a moral or ethical belief as to what is right or wrong that is sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious beliefs.

Courts typically favor a more limited definition than the definition of religion which is used by the executive branch. The most popular judicial examination of whether beliefs are religious examines:

  • 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 religions are defined by how similar they are as compared to traditionally recognized religions, the judicial inquiry is whether the religious beliefs are religious in nature, not whether those beliefs are orthodox, truthful, or real.

The goal of determining whether a practice or belief is religious is to dismiss frivolous lawsuits. For example, the case of the individual who claimed consuming cat food was central to his faith.

What Counts as a Religious Belief?

Although it is clear that an employer is not permitted to discriminate on the basis of an employee’s religion, what is considered to be a religious belief may not be so clear. The EEOC provides guidelines in Title VII.

Title VII provides a very broad definition of the term religion. Therefore, it not only covers 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.

In addition, these guidelines provide that, just because a certain belief is practiced by a religious group, it does not make that belief a religious belief on its own. Instead, the law recognizes a belief as a religious belief if it is held with the strength of a traditional religious view.

For example, an individual who practices Orthodox Judaism is not permitted to work on Saturdays. This is an essential part of their religious belief system.

In contrast, a Catholic individual may choose not to work on Saturday because of family obligations, but this is not mandated by the Catholic religion.

What Religious Practices do Employers Have to Honor?

In order to respect the religious practices of an employee within the bounds of the law, employers are required to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of their employees. Common examples of religious practices in the workplace which employers must accommodate includes:

  • Religious holidays;
  • Prayer in the workplace; and
  • Dress code.

Employers are required to allow flexible work schedules where employees have the ability to take off from work for significant religious holidays. Employers must also allow their employees to make up for the missed time.

So long as the procedure is reasonable, employers are required to allow their employees to pray in the workplace. It is important to note, however, employers are not required to accommodate any type of prayer or religious practice which would unreasonably interfere with work, such as clearing out the entire room of employees to allow one employee to pray alone.

Employers are not permitted to prohibit employees from wearing various articles of clothing, such as head covers or religious dress. Employers are not permitted to force employees to trim their hair or beard if that is a part of the religious observance of the employee.

What Defenses Do Employers Have To Religious Discrimination Claims?

There are a number of defenses an employer may raise if they are accused of religious belief discrimination. These defenses to an accusation of religious discrimination include, but are not limited to:

  • The employee practice or belief is not religious in nature;
  • The employer was not informed that the practice was religious;
  • Undue hardship;
  • Religious institution exception;
  • Minister exception; and
  • Establishment of religion.

As previously noted, only religions are covered by religious belief discrimination laws. If a belief is mostly social or political, it is not covered.

For example, if a church espouses white supremacist views, it would be considered religious. The Ku Klux Klan, however, is not considered religious.

Employees have a duty to inform their employer that a practice is connected with that employee’s religious beliefs. If the employee fails to notify their employer, they will not have a case for religious belief discrimination.

If an employer can show that accommodating an employee’s religious practice would harm their business, the employer is exempt. Harm may include a substantial loss of money and/or a substantial burden on the employer’s ability to conduct their business. For example, proselytizing to clients or co-workers who do not welcome it may hinder an employer’s business to the point where accommodation would be an undue hardship.

Institutions of religious education are exempt. Religious organizations, associations, or corporations are exempt if the employee is connected with the activities of the organization, association, or corporation’s religious beliefs. Institutions are considered religious if they are managed, controlled, supported, or owned, in whole or in part, by a particular religion.

Members of the clergy are exempt from laws regarding religious discrimination. The title of the clergy member does not matter so long as the employee’s primary duties are to:

  • Teach;
  • Spread the faith;
  • Govern the religion; or
  • Supervise rituals.

If one of these applies, then the employee is considered to be a minister and is exempt from the laws governing religious discrimination. This also includes lay employees whose jobs are also important for the spiritual and pastoral mission of the religious institution.

The establishment of religion defense applies only to a public employer. A public employer, or an employer who is a part of a government, whether it is federal, state, or local, is not permitted to violate the First Amendment prohibition on establishing a religion.

Do I Need an Attorney if My Employer Does Not Allow Me to Practice My Religion at Work?

It is crucial to have the assistance of a discrimination lawyer if your employer does not allow you to practice your religion at work. If this occurs, you may be facing religious discrimination.

Your attorney can review your situation and advise you whether or not your employer is likely obligated to permit you to practice your religion at work. They will also represent you if you are required to file a lawsuit to seek damages for the religious discrimination.

If you are an employer who is being sued for religious discrimination, it is important to contact an attorney as soon as possible. Your attorney will review the situation, advise you of any available defenses, and represent you during court appearances.


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