Religious Discrimination

Religious discrimination is something employers need to protect against and employees need to know their rights regarding. Religious discrimination is any adverse employment action motivated in part due to a person’s religious practices, beliefs, or background. It is prohibited by federal and state law. 

What is religious discrimination?

Religious discrimination happens when employees are treated different in some way due to their religious background or practices (such as when requesting accommodation in the work environment due to certain practices).

Religious discrimination can take many forms, and can even be just treating the person differently at the workplace due to their religion or lack of religion.

There are a variety of laws that prevent religious discrimination against those who are a part of prominent and established religious traditions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as those who deeply hold a variety of spiritual and moral ideas.

Religious discrimination laws provide remedies when a person is not hired for a job or terminated from their job, or any other kind of negative employment-related action is taken, due to their religious background.

Religious discrimination sometimes doesn’t happen by itself but rather may also accompany other kinds of discrimination, for example those regarding race and gender.

There are several types of religious discrimination that usually happen in relation to the work environment:

  • Hiring and firing decisions being influenced by a person’s religious background
  • Harassment at work due to a person’s religious background
  • Refusal to reasonably accommodate a person’s religious beliefs and practices

When discrimination takes place during the hiring and firing process, that means that decisions regarding who to select for a job, termination decisions, and promotion decisions inappropriately involve a person’s religious background as a factor. For example, if a person is fired who misses work due to participating in a religious observance day or selected for a less desirable job because they are a follower of Judaism or Islam, that would be religious discrimination not permitted under federal law.

Harassing people also is a form of religious discrimination. Examples of religious harassment include: telling an employee their dress violates the business’ policies if the person’s dress includes certain important religious wear, such as turbans or yarmulkes; mocking a person’s strongly held Hindu beliefs; belittling a Muslim because they refuse to eat pork-based products while at a business event; or attempting to convert a person to your faith.

Another major form of discrimination based on religious is when certain accommodations are not given when they are an important part of that person’s sincerely held religious beliefs.

For example, if an employer demands that a person work on Sunday despite the person following the Sabbath and there being easy ways to have other people fill in on Sunday, or if they require a person to remove the hijab scarf they wear, then that is a form of religious discrimination due to not finding reasonable accommodations for the person’s religious beliefs.

Which federal law covers religious discrimination?

There are a variety of laws that protect against religious discrimination. The primary federal law protecting against religious discrimination is 1964’s Civil Rights Act, specifically Title VII. It outlaws basing employment decisions, benefits, and opportunities on a person’s religious faith.

The law also demands that employees are reasonably accommodated in their religious beliefs and activities. However if the practice creates an “undue” difficulty on their employer, the employer can refuse to accommodate. Methods of accommodation include being flexible with schedules as well as switching around employees and shifts.

Title VII also makes it so that the treatment of all employees must be similar in regards to religion. People of a certain faith cannot be treated better or worse because of that faith.

Furthermore, if an employee reports religious discrimination they cannot be retaliated against by the employer.

States also have a variety of their own laws that bar religious discrimination, such as making stricter accommodation standards. These protections may often be stronger than the ones in Title VII.

What is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA?

In 1993 Congress passed and enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, which provided certain legal standards regarding exercising religious liberty in regards to state actions.

Specifically, the law provided that any government decision that burdened a person’s religious activity should be analyzed under the “strict scrutiny” standard, where the government action would only be allowed if it were to be for a “compelling” goal of the government and done in a way that burdens the person exercising their religious beliefs the least. 

Many states have also created their own versions of the RFRA to protect the exercise of religious beliefs in their own states. Many states also have created court precedent that mimics the RFRA. These states, numbering twenty in total, range from Alabama to Idaho to Ohio to Washington.

Who enforces the law?

In the federal government it is the EEOC agency that oversees employment discrimination, specifically in those workplaces that have at least fifteen employees. States will have their own departments that enforce against employment discrimination.

Who is protected under the law?

Title VII is very specific about who it applies to. The law states that it will apply to public and private employers, as well as educational organizations, labor groups, and certain agencies, that have fifteen or more employees. State laws may apply to employers with even fewer employees.

Both current employees as well as those looking for jobs are protected by the anti-discrimination regulations. People are consequently protected from the start to end of the employment process.

The purpose of Title VII is essentially to make sure that the country’s large variety of religions and beliefs are not snuffed out, including especially small ones that do not have as much influence or power.

Avoiding religious conflicts at work as an employee

Those with religious beliefs have certain obligations themselves as well. These include trying their best so that their religious beliefs do not unnecessarily burden their work responsibilities and environment as well as disclosing to their employer the fact that they have certain religious beliefs that they observe and may affect their work.

In order to ensure that they are properly protected, employees need to ensure that they have disclosed their religious obligations and practices and how they might reasonably conflict with certain employment duties. Records of such disclosures should be well-kept, as often the burden will be on the employee to prove that they made clear their conflicts.

Things to do if being discriminated against religious practices

If you believe you have been discriminated against in some way because of your religious background and beliefs, the first step to consider is filing a grievance. The grievance is a formal complaint through either your union or employer which attempts to fix the problem within the parties involved before it gets too out of control and costly.

Often the company’s human resources and employment policies, such as through their employee handbook, will be involved.

Even if the employee chooses to try to resolve the problem internally at first, the statutes of limitations still are in effect and so the employee should be aware of those deadlines too.

Employer's Responsibility on Religious Accommodation

As an employer, you still need to make sure that your employees’ religious practices and beliefs are being properly accommodated if you think they have certain beliefs but the employees do not fully let you know about their beliefs. Accommodation is required unless it creates significant difficulties for the employer.

If the employee notifies the employer of a certain religious practice, the employer must reasonably accommodate it. However even if the employee doesn’t, the employer is still liable if the employer has some kind of reasonable suspicious or belief the employee may follow certain religious practices. For example, if a person was not hired for a job, the employee may be able to win their claim if it is shown that the employer had a vague suspicion of the employee’s religious beliefs and used that as a decision factor.

In certain cases the employee may be able to question whether a person’s religious beliefs are actually held by the person, in which case accommodation is not needed.

Obtaining off on religious holidays or day of worship

When an employee wants to get accommodation for religious holidays, they will need to inform their employer and ask for a reasonable accommodation. The employer then will be put on notice and be able to see if they can accommodate their schedules and needs without too much hardship to the employee’s religious request. 

The employer is then required to accommodate the employee’s religious request except for in situations where it would be very difficult for the employer to do so, specifically if the accommodation would be either too difficult to make or too expensive.

The EEOC has determined that the standard for how much hardship is required of an employer before they do not have to accommodate a request to be if the belief would cost anything more than regular operation costs of the business, if the accommodation would affect the efficiency or safety of the workflow, if the accommodation would cause other employees to lose certain benefits or face an increased workload, or if the accommodations would be illegal or possibly contradict other laws and regulations.

Essentially, federal law requires that employers try to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and practices as best they can without taking on significant extra costs for doing so. If accommodation would be more expensive than not, then they do not have to make the accommodation.

Whether the employer will be able to accommodate various religious beliefs and practices will depend significantly on the kind of business they run and the sector they are in. Some industries and companies may find accommodation easier than others. Furthermore, the employee cannot use accommodation to escape work responsibilities, as the employer can request the employee to make sure they still meet quotas and time requirements.

Some religious practices are well established as protected. For example, the Sabbath as well as significant holy days are generally assumed to be able to be accommodated religious practices. However even these days may be considered to not be needed to be accommodated if the company experiences significant demands or unique requirements on that day.

Accommodated time off does not have to be compensated either. The employer may also require that the employee reasonably accommodate for the time they have taken off, whether by using certain leave time that has been accumulated or to come in for more shifts or work.

An example of a case where employers can refuse accommodations is if they operate under a system where shifts are assigned to those with more experience. In this case, the employer may be able to show how switching shifts would be difficult for the company to run properly and would cost the company money.

Employees who face situations where the company would have to actually incur costs in order to accommodate their religious beliefs should be open and proactive in finding ways to best accommodate their beliefs in a way that is acceptable to both them and hteir employer.

Retaliation on religious accommodations

Retaliation, or when an employer takes adverse action due to a complaint about religious discrimination, is also not permitted under Title VII. Retaliation is a common problem.

Even if the employee’s complaint is found to be groundless, the employer still cannot retaliate based on the attempt to file a claim.

If you need help learning more about how to prevent workplace religious discrimination or filing a religious discrimination claim for yourself or others, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel’s marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Stripe, and Twilio.