Religious discrimination is a type of employment discrimination. This type of discrimination occurs when an employee is treated less favorably than a similar employee because of certain characteristics which are referred to as protected classes.
What Are Protected Classes?
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is an anti-discrimination law that stipulates that an individual may not be discriminated against based on the following characteristics:
- National origin;
- Religious beliefs;
- Pregnancy; and
- Veteran status.
Employment discrimination may also arise when a group of employees is treated better than another, although the employees from both groups meet the same employment criteria and work standards. An example would be if a group of workers was receiving benefits that were denied to another group based on age.
Religious belief discrimination occurs when a worker is treated less favorably or differently than another worker based on their religious preferences. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically addresses religious discrimination.
This Title applies to employers in the private sector and federal, state, and local governments.
What Counts as Religious Discrimination?
In simple terms, the following conduct is considered to be religious discrimination:
- Treating certain employees either more or less favorably based on their religion;
- Forcing an employee to engage in practices that go against their religious beliefs; and
- Allowing employees to be harassed based on their religious beliefs by:
- other employees;
- management; or
Under EEOC guidelines, religious beliefs are not limited to the most common belief systems, for example:
- Islam; and
The EEOC guidelines also provide that a belief is not considered a religious belief because it is the belief of a religious group. A belief is religious if it is held with the “strength of traditional religious views.”
Religious discrimination may also include rules that appear neutral but harm an individual with certain religious beliefs. In other words, although a rule may not directly discriminate against a specific religion, individuals who practice that religion will be negatively affected and, therefore, discriminated against based on their religion.
Harassment based on a religious belief may include creating or maintaining a hostile work environment against a specific or even all religious beliefs. A defense, the Bona Fide Occupational Qualification defense, or BFOQ, allows an employer to fill certain jobs with individuals of a certain religion in a way that is not considered discriminatory.
The best example of this type of qualification would be a church. This is because a church can prefer Christians to fill their ministry positions.
Another common example would be a Catholic school only hiring Catholic teachers.
What Is a Religious Organization?
A religious organization is typically clearly recognizable as a:
- Mosque; or
The phrase religious organization, however, is unclear under the Title VII provisions for religion. The following characteristics, however, are taken into account to demonstrate that an institution’s principal aim is religious:
- Articles of incorporation stating a religious purpose;
- Day-to-day operations with religion as the main emphasis; and
- Whether it is a for-profit business.
A court will consider the elements listed above and the organization’s religious and secular aspects on a case-by-case basis. It is important to note that the religious organization exclusion only applies to religiously motivated discrimination.
Religious organizations cannot discriminate based on the protected classifications listed above. The religious organization exemption in Title VII specifically exempts religious organizations, such as churches, from its coverage.
What Is Religious Accommodation?
An employer is required to accommodate a reasonable religious practice as long as that accommodation does not cause the employer undue hardship. Common examples of religion in the workplace that an employer must accommodate include, but may not be limited to:
- Religious holidays: Employers must allow a flexible work schedule so that employees can take time off of work to celebrate significant religious holidays
- In addition, the employee must be allowed to make up for missed time;
- Prayer in the workplace: An employer must allow employees to pray as long as the procedure is reasonable. However, an employer does not have to accommodate any type of prayer or other religious practice that would unreasonably interfere with work;
- An example would be having to clear out an entire room of workers so that one worker could pray alone; and
- Dress code: An employer may not prohibit an employee from wearing various articles of clothing that are associated with their religious beliefs or practices;
- This includes head coverings;
- In addition, employers may not force a male employee to trim their hair or beard if that is part of their religious observance.
With these issues, there are several important distinctions to consider. First, the employee’s religious belief must be sincerely held.
This means that if an employee is not genuine in their belief or is faking it, and that belief is not important to them, an employer is not required to accommodate that belief. Second, the belief does not have to be a core value of the religion to be a religious belief.
The belief must only be held sincerely and as strongly as other traditional religious views. A philosophical belief may be considered a religious belief for religious discrimination.
When trying to determine whether or not a belief is religious, a court may examine several factors. For example, whether there is a collective worship and the individual’s belief affects their way of life.
How Do Employers Evaluate Whether a Religious Accommodation Constitutes an Undue Hardship?
As noted above, an employer is not required to provide certain religious accommodations if they would cause an undue hardship on the employer. Examples of undue hardships or greater than minimum business constraints may include, but are not limited to:
- Breaking a seniority system;
- Producing a shortage of required employees;
- Compromising security or health; or
- Costing the business more than a slight sum.
If changing an employee’s schedule would cause undue hardship, a business must allow coworkers to voluntarily trade or switch shifts to satisfy the worker’s religious practice or belief. If workers cannot be accommodated in their present job role, they may be permitted to move to a different position.
Overtime compensation for workers who replace shifts is not considered an excessive burden on an employer. Customers’ preferences or coworkers’ dissatisfaction does not justify rejecting religious accommodations.
An employer should evaluate any requests for religious accommodations on an individual basis as well as train management staff appropriately on how to respond to these types of requests.
Do I Need an Attorney for Assistance with Religious Discrimination in the Workplace?
If you believe you are facing religious discrimination in your place of work based on your belief system, several legal options and protections may be available to you. It is best to consult with a discrimination lawyer who can advise you of these protections.
Your attorney can review your situation and determine whether you can sue your employer for discrimination. If necessary, your attorney can file a lawsuit against your employer and represent you during court appearances.
If your employer wants to negotiate to resolve the issue, your attorney will also represent you during those meetings.