Religious Discrimination: What are my Rights at Work?

Doug Mann

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Table of Contents
  1. Who is Covered?
  2. Traditional Religious Discrimination
  3. Workplace Harassment
  4. Remedies
  5. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act
  6. The Future of Laws That Prohibit Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

You have the right to be free from religious discrimination in your workplace. That means you cannot be disadvantaged in your employment relations because of your religious beliefs or practices, and you cannot be subjected to any form of harassment on account of them. You are entitled to enforce your rights under both federal and state law. Following is an overview of how the law works.

Who is Covered?

Federal law covers all federal government employees and all employees of private companies with at least 15 employees. State and local laws differ. Ohio religious discrimination law, for example, covers employers with four or more employees. 

Traditional Religious Discrimination

In a nutshell, religious discrimination means treating anyone better or worse due to their religious beliefs. Following are some examples of employer behavior that, depending on the details, might constitute religious discrimination:

  • Refusing to hire or interview you because of your religious beliefs;
  • Requiring you to accept certain religious beliefs as a condition for employment;
  • Refusing to promote you because your religious beliefs, or favoring other employees of certain religious beliefs for promotions and raises;
  • Asking an employment agency to recruit applicants of only one faith;
  • Screening out your employment application because your name is associated with a certain faith (“Mohammad”, for example); 
  • Refusing any employment opportunities to you, or firing or demoting you, because you requested “reasonable accommodations” for your religious beliefs;
  • Your company’s dress code forbids the wearing of headscarves or other religious apparel; or
  • Your company criticizes or disciplines you for refusing to participate in company activities that violate your religious beliefs.

The foregoing list only scratches the surface of the possible forms that religious discrimination might take.

Reasonable Accommodation

Employers must make “reasonable accommodations” for an employee’s religious beliefs. Following are some examples of some religious accommodations that are at least arguably “reasonable”:

  • Allowing you to take the day off for the observance of a religious holiday. On the other hand, your employer might not be required to allow you to take off the entire month of Ramadan for religious reasons.
  • Allowing you to change shifts with another employee so that you can attend worship services;
  • Swapping your duties with another employee to allow you to avoid certain tasks. It might constitute reasonable accommodation, for example, to exempt you from serving alcohol to customers in a restaurant that serves mostly food. This request might not be “reasonable”, however, if you work for a nightclub.
  • Allowing you to pray in an empty room once every eight-hour shift.
  • Allowing you to wear a beard or cover your hair, even if this is generally not allowed.

The keyword here is “reasonable.” Ultimately, determining whether a given accommodation is “reasonable” is a judgment call.

Religious Exemptions

Certain employers are permitted to discriminate on the basis of religion, for obvious reasons. Imagine the consequences, for example, if a Christian church could be sued for requiring an applicant for a pastor to share the Christian faith of the church’s congregation. 

As such, the following organizations enjoy limited exemptions from the prohibition against religious discrimination. It is still unclear whether a religious organization may discriminate on the basis of religion when hiring, say, a janitor or another employee whose duties are not specifically religious. 

Workplace Harassment

Even if you are treated equally with other employees by all objective indicators, there is no reason why you should be subjected to workplace harassment. Forcing you to endure a hostile work environment is a form of discrimination. Workplace harassment primarily occurs when management tolerates certain types of offensive behavior. Following are some examples of harassment that probably amounts to religious discrimination:

  • Your employer allows other employees to taunt you or ridicule you based on your religious beliefs;
  • Your co-workers repeatedly attempt to convert you to another religion, despite your protests;
  • Your employer allows your co-workers to repeatedly criticize your religion in your presence; or
  • Your employer fires or demotes you because you complained about religious harassment.

These examples are not exhaustive, because religious harassment can take a multitude of forms. Remember that there are no religious exemptions to workplace harassment laws–even a church cannot harass its employees because of their religious faith (or lack thereof).

Is Atheism a Religion?

Yes, atheism is a religion, at least for the purposes of federal and state anti-discrimination employment law. An employer may not discriminate against or harass an employee of their lack of religious belief. Likewise, an employer may not, through silence or inaction, passively allow an atheist employee to suffer discrimination or harassment in the workplace.

Likewise, an employer may not discriminate against an employee for religious beliefs that fall outside of any organized religion. Even if the employee is the only person who holds a given set of beliefs, they are protected from religious discrimination on that basis as long as their beliefs are sincerely held and religious in nature (that is, meaningful and concerned with ultimate truths).

Remedies

You can enforce federal religious discrimination law by filing a claim with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC). If the EEOC finds your claim valid, it will attempt to settle privately with the defendant. If that effort fails, the EEOC may file a lawsuit on your behalf. If not, it will notify you and you can then (and only then) file a lawsuit in federal court against the defendant. State laws differ, but most offer similar remedies.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act

To what extent does the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom under the First Amendment prevent the government (federal, state, or local) from passing laws that incidentally burden religious activity? Can a company require you to remove your headscarf to take a photograph for an employee ID, for example? This is an issue that concerns all religious practice, not only religious practice that takes place in the workplace. 

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) requires the government to show a compelling interest in applying a religiously neutral law in a manner that burdens religious activity. The government must enforce the law, if at all, in a manner that least burdens religious practice. So far, 21 states have passed their own version of the RFRA. 

The Future of Laws That Prohibit Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

The law, like society, is a constantly evolving phenomenon. Recent years have seen a collision between religious discrimination laws and other forms of discrimination law–LGBT discrimination in particular. Can a religious college refuse to admit or provide housing for gay couples? It will be interesting to see how these disputes are resolved. For now, though, the ultimate outcome is still in doubt.

In the meantime, we’re here to help. If you’re facing discrimination of any type in the workplace, it’s incredibly important to get an experienced attorney on your side to fight for your rights. Contact us today to set up a free consultation to see how we can help you.

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