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 because of your religious beliefs or practices, and you cannot be subjected to any form of harassment because of them. You are entitled to enforce these rights under both federal and state law.

Who is Covered?

The federal law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, covers all federal government employees and all employees of private companies with at least 15 employees. Ohio’s religious discrimination principles, which are set forth in the Ohio Fair Employment Practices Act, cover employers with four or more employees.  

Traditional Religious Discrimination

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 of 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 is not exhaustive of the possible forms that religious discrimination might take.

Reasonable Accommodation

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

  • Allowing you to take a day off for the observance of a religious holiday. 
  • 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 contrary to your religion, such as serving alcohol.  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.

Ultimately, determining whether a given accommodation is “reasonable” is a judgment call, often subject to different interpretations.

Religious Exemptions

Certain employers are permitted to discriminate on the basis of religion, for obvious reasons. A Christian church, for example, may require an applicant for a pastor to share the Christian faith of the church’s congregation. 

Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment is also illegal, and is different from discrimination. It is often considered to be a hostile work environment that occurs when management tolerates (or perhaps even engages in) certain types of offensive behavior in the workplace such as:

  • Allowing other employees to taunt you or ridicule you based on your religious beliefs; or
  • Allowing  your co-workers to criticize your religion in your presence.

These examples are not exhaustive, because religious harassment can take a multitude of forms. 

Is Atheism a Religion?

Atheism is a religion, at least for the purposes of federal and state anti-discrimination law. An employer may not discriminate against or harass an employee because of his or her 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 federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) or Ohio’s Civil Rights Commission. If the EEOC finds your claim valid, it will attempt to settle privately with the employer. If that effort fails, the EEOC may file a lawsuit against your employer 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. 

The procedure in Ohio differs somewhat, but offers similar remedies. When  you file a charge with the OCRC, mediation will be offered to the parties. If the parties agree to mediate, and achieve a successful result, the case will be closed. If not, there will be a full investigation and the OCRC will issue a recommendation. If the OCRC finds probable cause of a violation, it will work with the employer to mitigate the discriminatory behavior. If not, it will issue a Right to Sue letter to the employee, allowing him or her to file a lawsuit. 

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, 23 states have passed their own version of the RFRA. 

The Future of Laws That Prohibit Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

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.

The law, like society, is constantly evolving. In the meantime, we’re here to help. If you’re facing discrimination of any type in the workplace, it’s imperative 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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