Religious discrimination occurs when an employee is treated differently based on their religious preference. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically addresses religious discrimination. In 2002, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received over 2,500 complaints based on religious discrimination.

What Counts as Religious Discrimination?

To avoid religious discrimination, employers cannot:

  • Treat certain employees more favorably because of their religion.
  • Force employees to participate in practices against their religious beliefs.
  • Allow employees to be harassed on the basis of the employees’ religious beliefs.

Employers must accommodate reasonable religious practices as long as accommodation is not an undue hardship.

What is Religious Accommodation?

Federal law requires that employers accommodate reasonable religious practices. Employers should be flexible with employees regarding religious practices. For instance, employers should allow employees to change their schedule if the employees need to observe a religious holiday. Likewise, employers should make allowances if employees request an accommodation regarding the dress code, assuming that the request is not outrageous.

However, if the employer is faced with extreme hardship, he may have an excuse to dismiss an employee’s request for accommodation. The interpretation of extreme hardship may differ between jurisdictions, but a good way to measure “hardship” is by weighing the cost of the accommodation against the size, nature, structure, and resources of the employer. Wal-Mart or Target probably have the profits and staff to allow a few employees to take Saturdays off. On the other hand, a small convenience store with only two clerks might not be able to afford the same request.

What About Customer Preference?

Generally, an employer may not discriminate against someone with a different religious practices based on customer preference. 

However, employers may discriminate based on customer preference for certain religions if religion is essential to the job. The Bona Fide Occupational Qualification defense, or BFOQ, allows employers to fill certain jobs with people of a certain religion.

The best examples are churches or religious teachers in a religious school. A church has the right to prefer Christians to fill a ministry. A Catholic school has the right to only hire Christians to teach Bible study. 

What Steps Should Employees Take?

An employee that feels they have been discriminated against based on religion has several options available. These include:

  • Filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.
  • Charges should be filed within 180 days of the alleged discrimination.
  • In addition, the EEOC has a toll free hotline at 1-800-669-4000 that allows individuals that don’t have an EEOC office nearby to request assistance.

Should I Consult an Attorney?

An experienced employment attorney can be extremely valuable in assisting any employee in religious discrimination issues. The filing of a complaint and gathering of relevant evidence requires an attorney with experience. In addition, an experienced attorney can help to guide employees in any settlement arrangements.