Religious discrimination is the unequal treatment of an individual based on their religious beliefs or practices.
In the context of employment, religious discrimination arises when an employer treats an employee unfavorably because of their religious preferences.
This type of discrimination is a subset of employment discrimination, which targets individuals belonging to a protected class, such as religion.
When an employee is subjected to unfavorable treatment due to their religious affiliation, compared to other similarly situated employees, they are considered to be experiencing discrimination in the workplace.
Through Title VII, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically addresses religious discrimination. This Act prohibits employers from taking the following actions based on an employee’s protected class, including religion:
- Hiring and firing decisions: An employer refuses to hire a job candidate because they wear a headscarf or hijab as part of their religious practice, despite their qualifications for the job.
- Compensation, classification, or assignment of employees: An employer pays employees of certain religions less than others or assigns them to less desirable jobs based on their religion.
- Transfers, promotions, demotions, or layoffs: An employee is passed over for a promotion or demoted because of their religion or is laid off, while others who practice a different religion are not.
- Job advertisements and recruitment of new employees: A job advertisement includes language that suggests a preference for candidates of a certain religion or discourages candidates of a particular religion from applying.
- Testing for employment purposes: An employment test screens out applicants of certain religions even though their religion is not relevant to their ability to perform the job.
- Permitting or denying the use of company spaces or equipment: An employer allows employees of one religion to use a company prayer room but refuses to allow employees of another religion to use the same space.
- Access to training or apprenticeship opportunities: Employees are denied training or apprenticeship programs because of their religion.
- Implementation of dress codes that disproportionately affect religious employees: An employer enforces a dress code that prohibits head coverings, which has a disparate impact on employees who wear religious head coverings.
- Access to retirement, disability, and fringe benefits: An employee is denied access to certain benefits because of their religion.
- Scheduling work or work-related activities to deliberately conflict with religious holidays: An employer schedules mandatory meetings or work activities on a religious holiday, making it difficult or impossible for employees of certain religions to participate.
- Harassment, or failure to protect an employee from harassment by a coworker: An employee is subjected to derogatory comments or slurs based on their religion or is physically threatened or assaulted because of their religion. The employer fails to act appropriately to stop the harassment and protect the employee.
To prevent accusations of religious discrimination, employers should avoid the following specific actions:
- Treating employees more favorably or less favorably based on their religion, such as showing a preference for a Christian employee or displaying bias against a Muslim employee;
- Forcing employees to participate in practices that go against their religious beliefs, except for the Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications defense (“BFOQ” defense); or
- Allowing employees to be harassed because of their beliefs, including harassment by other employees or management.
What Is Religious Accommodation? What Are Some Examples of Religious Accommodation?
Religious accommodation refers to an employer’s obligation to reasonably adjust workplace policies, procedures, or environments to accommodate an employee’s religious practices or observances. Under federal law, employers must demonstrate flexibility in addressing their employees’ religious needs, such as adjusting work schedules to accommodate religious holidays or observances.
For instance, an employer may need to allow employees to modify their work attire to comply with religious dress codes, provided the request is not excessive or unreasonable.
Additional examples of religious accommodation may include:
- Granting flexible work breaks for religious activities, such as prayer;
- Facilitating job reassignments, such as department transfers or changes in job tasks, in an equitable and non-discriminatory manner;
- Allowing employees to swap shifts voluntarily;
- Adapting workplace practices to accommodate diverse religious beliefs and customs;
- Designating private spaces for religious observances;
- Permitting employees to observe religious grooming or dress practices, such as wearing a head covering or maintaining facial hair; or
- Allowing employees to abstain from wearing specific clothing that conflicts with their religious practices, such as pants, when their religion mandates wearing only dresses or skirts.
Regarding religious holidays, employers must also permit employees to make up for any missed work time resulting from time off for religious observance. As for prayer in the workplace, employers may deny any religious practice that unreasonably interferes with work.
Employees must communicate their need for schedule modifications based on their religious practices or conflicts between their beliefs and work duties to request a religious accommodation. Accommodations are typically not granted automatically and must be requested.
When Would a Religious Accommodation Be Denied?
An employer can legally deny an employee’s request for religious accommodation if providing the accommodation would cause “undue hardship” to the company. Undue hardship occurs when a religious accommodation:
- Incurs excessive costs: An employee who practices a religion that requires them to take breaks at certain times of the day requests to be paid for those breaks. However, granting this request would require the employer to hire another employee to cover the work during those breaks, which would be too expensive for the company.
- Compromises workplace safety standards: An employee requests to wear a religious head covering while working with machinery, but the head covering presents a safety hazard that cannot be mitigated. The employer cannot reasonably accommodate the request without compromising safety in the workplace.
- Infringes on the rights of other employees: An employee requests to hang religious decorations in their workspace, but the decorations may offend other employees or create a hostile work environment.
- Imposes additional tasks on other employees: An employee requests to take every Friday off for religious observance, which would require other employees to cover their work and disrupt normal business operations.
- Creates workplace inefficiency: Employees request that their workspace be rearranged to face a certain direction as required by their religious practice. However, doing so would require rearranging other workspaces and impede workflow in the office.
- Contravenes the terms of the company’s collective bargaining agreement: An employee requests time off for a religious observance that conflicts with the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, which provides for limited vacation time and does not include this observance as a valid reason for taking time off.
To establish undue hardship, employers must demonstrate that the accommodation request would impose more than a minimal burden on the business’s operations. The definition of extreme or undue hardship may vary across jurisdictions. Generally, undue hardship is assessed by weighing the cost of the accommodation against factors such as the employer’s size, nature, structure, and resources.
Do I Need an Attorney for Religious Accommodation?
If you feel like your employer has discriminated against you because of your religious beliefs or practices, contact a skilled and knowledgeable discrimination lawyer immediately.
An experienced employment law attorney can help you understand your rights and the laws that apply to your situation in your state. They can also advise you on the best steps to take and even represent you in court if you decide to take legal action against your employer for their discriminatory behavior.
LegalMatch can assist you in finding the right discrimination lawyer for your religious accommodation case. Through LegalMatch’s platform, you can submit your case details and receive responses from qualified attorneys who are interested in taking on your case.
LegalMatch’s lawyer-matching process considers the specifics of your case and matches you with attorneys with experience handling similar cases. This saves you time and helps you find the right attorney to advocate for your rights.