Religious discrimination refers to a type of employment discrimination, which occurs when an employee is treated less favorably than similar employees due to certain characteristics. These certain characteristics are typically known as protected classes.The Civil Rights Act of 1964 in one anti-discrimination law stipulating that a person may not be discriminated against based on the following characeteristics:

  • Age;
  • Race;
  • National origin;
  • Religious beliefs;
  • Gender;
  • Disability;
  • Pregnancy; and
  • Veteran status.

Employment discrimination may also occur when one group of employees are treated better than another group of employees, although employees from both groups meet the same work standards and employment criteria. An example of this would be one group of workers clearly receiving benefits that are denied to others on the basis of their sex.

Religious belief discrimination specifically occurs when an employee is treated differently or less favorably based on their religious preferences. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically addresses religious discrimination, and applies to employers in the private sector as well as local, state, and federal government. According to statistics posted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), in 2019 alone, the EEOC received over 2,700 complaints regarding religious discrimination in the workplace.

What Counts as Religious Discrimination?

In very simple terms, the following are considered to be religious discrimination:

  • Treating certain employees either more or less favorably based on their religion;
  • Forcing employees to engage in practices that go against their religious beliefs; and
  • Allowing employees to be harassed by either other employees or management/supervision based on the employee’s religious beliefs.

According to EEOC guidelines, religious beliefs should not be limited to the most obvious belief systems such as Catholicism, Christiantiy, and the Muslim and Jewish religions. The guidelines go on to state that a belief is not religious because it is the belief of a religious group. Instead, a belief is religious if it is “held with the strength of traditional religious views.”

Religious discrimination also includes neutral rules which have an adverse affect on those who hold certain religious beliefs. Thus, although the rule might not directly discriminate against a certain religion, those who practice that religion will be negatively affected and therefore discriminated against because of their religion. Harassment based on religious beliefs may include creating or maintaining a hostile work environment against specific or all religious beliefs.

The Bona Fide Occupational Qualification defense, or “BFOQ,” allows employers to fill certain jobs with people of a certain religion in a way that is not considered discriminatory. The best example of this would be a church, as they have the right to prefer Christians to fill their ministry positions. Another example is a Catholic school having the right to only hire Catholic teachers.

What Is Religious Accommodation?

Employers must accommodate reasonable religious practices so long as the accommodation is not an undue hardship. Some common examples of religion in the workplace that must be accommodated include:

  • Religious Holidays: Employers must allow a flexible work schedule. This is so an employee has the ability to take time off of work in order to celebrate significant religious holidays. Additionally, the employee must be allowed to make up for missed time;
  • Prayer in the Workplace: An employer must allow an employee to pray in the workplace, so long as the procedure to do so is reasonable. However, any type of prayer or other religious practice that would unreasonably interfere with work does not have to be accommodated. An example of this would be needing to clear out an entire room of working employees so that one employee may pray alone; and
  • Dress Code: Employers may not prohibit employees from wearing various articles of clothing associated with their religious beliefs or practices. This includes head coverings. Additionally, employers may not force a male presenting employee to trim their hair or beard, if that is part of the employee’s religious observance.

There are a few important distinctions to consider. First, a religious belief must be sincerely held. This means that if an employee is faking their belief, or something is not actually of importance to them, the employer does not have to accommodate that belief. Second, a belief does not have to be a core value of a religion to be religious. The belief needs only be held sincerely, and as strongly as any other traditional religious views.

Philosophical beliefs may be considered as religious beliefs for the purposes of religious discrimination. When determining whether a belief is religious, courts may use a number of determining factors. An example of this would be whether there is a collective worship, and whether a belief affects the believer’s way of life.

Do I Need an Attorney for Assistance With Religious Discrimination in the Workplace?

If you are facing discrimination in your workplace due to your belief system, there are several legal protections and options available to you. It is in your best interest to consult with a skilled and knowledgeable employment law attorney.

An experienced employment law attorney can inform you of your legal rights and options. Additionally, an attorney can file a lawsuit on your behalf against your employer and guide you in any settlement negotiations. Finally, an attorney can represent you in court as necessary.