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Religious Discrimination

One of the many protections afforded to workers under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a protection from religious discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gives employees the legal right to accommodation for their religious beliefs as well as the right to be free from discrimination on account of their religion. These protections are meant to include all aspects of religious observance and practice and apply to employers with 15 or more employees on the payroll for each working day in each of twenty or more calendar weeks. The purpose of the law is to protect employees from having to place obedience to an employer over and above their religious convictions. The term “religion,” for Title VII purposes, is broadly and loosely defined. Indeed, religion does not have to refer to any formal religion or conventionally organized church; although, the definition is not so broad as to encompass purely personal preference.

Accommodation Claims

Employees are allowed to have their honestly held religious beliefs accommodated at work unless the employer can show any accommodation will cause undue hardship to its business. Undue hardship can include a lot of different things such as adverse impact on other employees or excessive cost. Also, it is the employer that gets to pick the accommodation, so long as it is reasonable. An example of a reasonable accommodation is unpaid leave to attend religious services. Accommodations that are not appropriate are those that deprive employees of employment opportunities enjoyed by others. For instance, it would not be appropriate for an employer to require use of vacation time for leave to attend religious services.

Similar to disability claims, requests for accommodation of religious beliefs requires a company to engage in an interactive process. However, unlike disability cases, the employee need not propose any specific means of accommodation; rather, it is the obligation of the employer to come up with something reasonable or prove an undue hardship. The following are some different types of accommodation claims arising from different work situations:

  • Dress and appearance claims arising from an employer’s dress code;
  • Objectionable duty claims where an assigned duty infringes on religious practices or beliefs;
  • Scheduling claims where an employer’s schedule and an employee’s religious observance conflict; and
  • Religious conscience claims based on something the employer is doing in its business;

To prove a failure to accommodate claim, an employee must be able to show: (1) that he or she had a bona fide religious belief, the practice of which conflicted with an employment duty; (2) the employer was informed of the belief and conflict; and (3) the employer threatened or subjected the employee to discriminatory treatment because of the inability to fulfill the job requirements. If an employee can make this showing, then the employer must prove that it negotiated with the employee in an effort reasonably to accommodate the religious beliefs but that no accommodation is possible without undue hardship.

Intentional Discrimination Claims

Intentional discrimination claims are those that involve adverse action or different treatment on account of a person’s religion. If there is no admission of wrongdoing, an employee would have to prove: (1) he or she was qualified for the job held; (2) that he or she held a bona fide or true religious belief; (3) some adverse job action; and (4) better treatment of persons not holding such religious belief. If this is accomplished, the employer will have the burden to show a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the action. If the employer can do so, it then becomes the employee’s responsibility to show that reason is a lie or a pretext for discrimination and the true motivating factor for the action was the religious belief.

Religious Harassment Claims

Harassment on account of religion is also illegal. Religious harassment claims are looked at in the same way as sexual harassment or racial harassment. In order to show religious harassment, employees must establish: (1)that they were subjected to unwelcome religious harassment; (2) that the harassment was indeed based on religion; (3) that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive work environment or that they suffered a tangible employment action as a result of a refusal to accept religiously hostile conduct; and (4) that there is a basis to hold the employer liable for the conduct. In determining whether conduct is severe or pervasive, the courts look to the frequency and its severity, whether it is physically threatening or humiliating or merely offensive comments.

As with sexual and racial harassment, if an employee suffers from a tangible employment action because of his or her refusal to accept religiously offensive conduct, an employer can be directly liable for the harassment. If there is no tangible employment action involved but, instead, merely the existence of a hostile work environment, an employer can avoid liability but only if it can prove that it both exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior and that the employee failed to take advantage of any preventative or corrective opportunities.

If you have any questions about your rights with regard to religious discrimination, please contact us and we will be happy to advise you as to the law and your particular situation. To further discuss your concerns, you can call us toll free at (706) 769-4410, send us an e-mail, or fill out a consultation request form and we will contact you as soon as possible.