Religious Discrimination at Work
Religious freedom is one of the fundamental principles upon which America was founded. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits private employers, state or local governments and educational institutions from discriminating on the basis of religion. In addition to Title VII, states also have their own labor laws protecting employees from religious discrimination at work. These state labor laws often offer greater employee rights than federal law, so always check your local and state laws.
The first step in determining whether an employee has a claim for religious discrimination at work is to identify the type of discrimination itself. Typical forms of discrimination in the workplace include taking any of the following actions based solely on an employee's religion:
- hiring or terminating employees
- compensating, assigning, or classifying employees
- promoting, transferring, or laying off employees
- testing, recruiting, or harassing employees
The next step is to identify what Title VII requires, and doesn't require, of employers. Title VII requires that employers: 1) reasonably accommodate employees' religious practices, unless 2) that would cause an undue hardship on the employer. Courts balance the reasonableness of the employer's actions versus the hardship caused by complying with the employees' religious practices.
The first question a court must ask is whether the employer acted reasonably. For example, a court found that a company acted unreasonably when it refused to allow a Muslim employee to wear a head scarf during the holy month of Ramadan. Applying the second question, the court couldn't find any undue hardship on the company in allowing the employee to wear a headscarf. Other practices that courts have found unreasonable are failure to give time off for religious observances and refusing to provide time and/or a place to pray.
On the other hand, however, several courts have held that it is reasonable for employers to preclude religious objects being displayed in employee cubicles. The bottom line is that employers are only required to reasonably accommodate employees' religious practices, not to do whatever the employee wants. A typical example of this is when an employer agrees to provide you with a day off for religious observance, but refuses to compensate you for it.Finally, if an employee is considering filing a charge for religious discrimination at work, they should visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (www.eeoc.gov), an agency setup by Title VII to assist people with employment discrimination cases. Charges must typically be filed within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act, and federal employees must file charges within their own agency. As always, consult with a lawyer if you believe you have a case.