Religious discrimination in the workplace: What to know

Learn if you may be experiencing this treatment and what steps to take.

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What's Inside

What's Inside

Religion is an important aspect of many people’s lives and should never be a source of discrimination in the workplace or any other place. Unfortunately, religious discrimination isn’t only common, it’s not spoken about as openly as other types of workplace discrimination. This leaves many employees unsure about what actually constitutes religious discrimination in the workplace and the steps they can take to address it.

This article aims to help. First we’ll explain what religious discrimination in the workplace is and the various forms it can take. We’ll also discuss how religious beliefs are protected under the law and what qualifies as a religious belief or practice. Lastly, we’ll share guidance on what you can do if you experience discrimination due to your religious practices, how to prove religious discrimination and when to seek legal help.

What is religious discrimination in the workplace?

Religious discrimination in the workplace occurs when an employer treats an employee or job applicant unfavorably because of their religious beliefs, practices or affiliation. This treatment can be direct or indirect, and it can take many different forms.

Discrimination based on one’s religious beliefs isn’t uncommon. In a national survey of more than 13,000 people, 27 percent of respondents reported perceiving religious discrimination in the workplace at some point in their careers. Muslims and Jews were most likely to say they’d experienced this type of discrimination. 

Forms of religious discrimination in the workplace

Religious discrimination can present in various ways in work settings. Below are some of the most common forms of religious discrimination in the workplace, as well as specific examples of each.

1. Hiring, firing and employment practices

Religious discrimination in hiring, firing and employment practices occurs when an employer makes decisions about an employee or job applicant based on their religious beliefs or practices, rather than their qualifications or job performance. For example:

  • Hiring discrimination: An employer chooses not to hire a job candidate because of their religious affiliation or practices, despite their qualifications for the position. This can also take the form of asking discriminatory, inappropriate questions during the interview process in order to learn more about the candidate’s religion or religious practices.
  • Firing discrimination: An employer terminates an employee not because of their job performance but because of their religious beliefs or practices. This can include situations where an employee requests time off for religious holidays and is subsequently fired, or where an employee is asked to engage in activities that conflict with their religious beliefs and is fired when they decline.
  • Employment practices discrimination: An employer implements policies or practices that disproportionately impact employees based on their religious beliefs or practices. For example, requiring employees to work on religious holidays without providing reasonable accommodation for those who need time off for religious observances.

2. Harassment

Religious harassment in the workplace occurs when an employee is subjected to unwanted and offensive behavior based on their religious beliefs or practices. This behavior can take many different forms, including but not limited to:

  • Offensive comments or jokes about an employee’s religion
  • Ridiculing or mocking an employee’s religious practices or beliefs
  • Insulting an employee’s religion or beliefs
  • Displaying or circulating offensive religious images or materials
  • Forcing an employee to participate in religious activities against their will
  • Threatening an employee with harm or negative consequences because of their religious beliefs or practices

In order for behavior to be considered religious harassment, it must be severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment for the employee. This means that the behavior alters the conditions of the employee’s work environment and makes it difficult for them to perform their job duties. Additionally, the behavior must be unwelcome and unwanted by the employee.

3. Failure to accommodate religious beliefs and practices

Employers are required by law to provide reasonable accommodations for their employees’ religious practices, unless doing so would cause undue hardship or harm to the company. Examples of failure to reasonably accommodate may include:

  • Refusing to allow an employee time off for religious observances
  • Denying an employee the ability to wear religious clothing or symbols at work
  • Refusing to allow an employee to take breaks for prayer or other religious practices
  • Scheduling mandatory work events or meetings during times that conflict with an employee’s religious practices
  • Refusing to allow an employee to follow dietary restrictions based on their religion

An accommodation is considered reasonable if it doesn’t cause significant difficulty or expense for the employer. If an accommodation would cause undue hardship, such as requiring significant expense or disrupting the company’s operations, the employer may be exempt from providing the accommodation.

How are religious beliefs protected in the workplace?

Religious beliefs are protected in the workplace by both federal and state laws

The federal law is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Title VII, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees or job applicants based on their religion and must make reasonable accommodations for worker’s religious practices.

In addition to Title VII, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has guidelines on religious discrimination in the workplace that further clarify what constitutes religious discrimination and how employers can comply with the law.

Some states have additional anti-discrimination laws that provide additional protections for employees based on their religious practices. For example, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) makes it unlawful for an employer to take an adverse employment action against an employee based on religion or religious attire. Employers also must “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s religious belief or practice, so long as such accommodation doesn’t present an undue hardship on the employer’s business.

However, there are some exceptions to these protections. For example, if your job involves religious activities or functions, and your religious beliefs are incompatible with those activities, your employer may be able to take action to accommodate the job duties. Similarly, if your religious beliefs would create a safety risk in your job, your employer may be able to take action to ensure safety.

What qualifies as a religion or a religious belief or practice?

The definition of religion and what qualifies as a religious belief or practice can be complex and vary depending on the context. In the workplace, however, the EEOC provides guidance on what constitutes a religious belief or practice. 

According to the EEOC, a religious belief or practice includes any sincerely held belief (whether part of an organized religion or not) that relates to the nature of the universe, human life or moral or ethical values.

Some examples of religious beliefs or practices that may be protected in the workplace include:

  • Beliefs about the existence of a higher power or divine being
  • Observance of religious holidays or customs
  • Wearing religious clothing or symbols, such as a hijab, yarmulke or cross
  • Dietary restrictions based on religious beliefs, such as kosher or halal practices
  • Refraining from certain activities or behaviors due to religious beliefs, such as alcohol consumption or premarital sex

An employee’s belief or practice doesn’t need to be mainstream or accepted by a particular religious group in order to be protected from discrimination in the workplace. As long as the belief or practice is sincerely held and has a religious basis, it may be protected.

What can I do if I am being discriminated against due to my religious practices?

If you’re being discriminated against in the workplace due to your religious practices, there are several steps you can take.

1. Document everything

Keeping a log of incidents can help you build a case for your complaint and provide evidence to support your claims. When documenting events, consider the following:

  • Record all incidents of harassment and any steps you took to report them. This can help you track the progress of your complaint and provide a clear record of what’s happened.
  • Be detailed. Write down the date, time, location and any witnesses present for each incident of harassment. Also describe what was said or done and how it made you feel.
  • Keep any physical evidence, such as offensive or harassing messages, emails, notes or pictures of images or materials displayed in the workplace.

2. Request an accommodation

By making a clear and specific request for accommodation, you can help ensure that your needs are met and that your religious beliefs and practices are respected in the workplace.

The following steps can help you request reasonable accommodation from your employer.

  • Identify your need: Determine the specific accommodation you need, such as time off for a religious holiday or a space for prayer.
  • Review your company’s policies: Check your employee handbook and other materials to find any policies and procedures for requesting accommodations. This may include completing a request form or speaking with your supervisor or human resources (HR) representative.
  • Submit a written request: Fill out a request form or send an email or letter to your supervisor or HR representative. Describe the specific accommodation you need and explain your religious beliefs or practices that require the accommodation.
  • Provide supporting information: If necessary, provide documentation from a religious leader, information about the religious significance of the accommodation or other materials to support your request.
  • Follow up: Check that your accommodation is being considered. Also be prepared to discuss any questions or concerns your supervisor or HR representative may have.
  • Be flexible: Be willing to work with your employer to find a reasonable accommodation that meets your needs and is feasible for the company.

3. Report the discrimination

If you feel comfortable doing so, speak with your supervisor, HR department or a higher-up in the company about the discrimination. You might consider the following when doing this:

  • Know your company’s policy: Review your employee handbook or other materials for any anti-discrimination policy and reporting procedures. If you can’t find this information, contact your HR department.
  • Report the discrimination: As soon as possible, provide specific details about the incident, including what happened, who was involved and any witnesses.
  • Follow up: To ensure appropriate action is being taken, contact the person that you report the incident to. Ask about the timeline for an investigation and resolution of the issue.

4. Contact a government agency

If you’re unable to resolve the issue with your employer, you may wish to file a complaint with the EEOC. The process for filing a complaint typically follows these steps:

  • Contact the EEOC: Contact the nearest field office or the toll-free line (1-800-669-4000) to begin the complaint process. You can also visit the EEOC’s website to learn more about the complaint process and find the appropriate forms.
  • Provide information: Provide details about the discrimination, including the date and location of the incident, the people involved and a description of what happened.
  • Complete a charge of discrimination form: The EEOC provides this form. It’s a legal document that includes information about the discrimination, your employer and your contact information.
  • Submit the charge of discrimination form: Send this to the EEOC by mail, in person or online. You must submit the form within 180 days of the discriminatory act, or within 300 days if your state has a fair employment practices agency.
  • Wait for an investigation: The EEOC will investigate your complaint and may request additional information from you or your employer. The investigation may take several months.
  • Receive a determination: Once the investigation is complete, the EEOC will issue a letter explaining whether there’s reasonable cause to believe that discrimination occurred. If the EEOC determines there is reasonable cause, it will attempt to resolve the issue through mediation or other means. If the EEOC is unable to resolve the issue, it may file a lawsuit on your behalf or issue a right-to-sue letter.

Note that the complaint process with the EEOC can be complex and time-consuming. Because of this, you may wish to seek legal representation to assist with the process.

If you receive a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC after filing a complaint of religious discrimination in the workplace, you have the option of taking legal action against your employer. 

The general steps involved in taking legal action are as follows:

  • Find an attorney: Contact an experienced employment law attorney who can review your case and advise you on your legal options. Taking legal action can be a complex and time-consuming process. Working with an experienced employment law attorney can help ensure that your rights are protected and that you have the best possible chance of success in your case.
  • Work with your attorney to prepare your case: This often includes gathering evidence, identifying witnesses and preparing legal documents.
  • Your attorney will file a complaint: The complaint outlines the details of the discrimination and the legal basis for your claim.
  • Your attorney will serve the complaint on your employer: Your employer then has a set amount of time to respond.
  • Discovery: This process allows both sides to gather evidence and exchange information about the case. This may include depositions, requests for documents and other legal procedures. 
  • Alternative resolution methods: Depending on your circumstances and legal options, you may consider mediation or arbitration. Mediation is a process in which a neutral third party helps you and your employer reach a mutually acceptable resolution to the dispute. Arbitration is a process in which a neutral third party makes a binding decision about the dispute. Both mediation and arbitration are typically less adversarial than going to trial and can be less expensive and more efficient.
  • Pre-trial motions: If your case goes to trial, before the trial, your attorney and your employer’s attorney may file motions to dismiss the case or to limit the evidence that can be presented at trial.
  • Trial: Both sides present evidence and argue their case before a judge or jury.
  • Verdict: If the judge or jury finds in your favor, you may be awarded damages to compensate you for the harm caused by the discrimination.

How do you prove religious discrimination in the workplace?

To prove religious discrimination in the workplace, you need to provide evidence that shows you were treated unfairly because of your religious beliefs or practices. Below are some ways to gather evidence to support your claim:

  • Document incidents: Keep a written record of any incidents of discrimination that you experience or witness. 
  • Keep emails and other communications: Save any emails, letters or other communications related to the discrimination. This can help to establish a pattern of discrimination.
  • Gather witness statements: If there were witnesses to the discrimination, ask them to provide a written statement about what they saw or heard.
  • Seek medical or counseling records: If the discrimination has caused emotional distress or physical harm, obtain medical or counseling records to document your injuries.
  • Compare treatment with others: If possible, compare how you were treated with how others were treated in similar situations. If you can show that others were treated differently because of their religion, this can help to establish discrimination.
  • Gather company policies: Obtain copies of policies related to discrimination and accommodation, as well as any communications that explain these policies.
  • Seek legal advice: Consult with an experienced employment law attorney, who can help you gather evidence and build a strong case.

When to talk with a lawyer

If you believe you’ve experienced religious discrimination in the workplace, talking with a lawyer can help you understand your legal rights and options. An experienced employment law attorney can also provide guidance on how to best protect yourself from discrimination.

You may find legal counsel particularly helpful if any of the following applies to you:

  • You’ve been subjected to harassment or mistreatment at work because of your religious beliefs or practices.
  • Your employer has refused to accommodate your religious beliefs or practices, despite your request for an accommodation.
  • You’ve been passed over for a promotion or denied a job because of your religion.
  • You’ve been fired or disciplined because of your religion.
  • Your employer has retaliated against you for reporting discrimination or filing a complaint.
  • You’ve tried to resolve the issue with your employer but have been unsuccessful.
  • You’re unsure what your legal rights are or what steps you can take to protect them.

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Frequently asked questions

How do you prove religious discrimination in the workplace?

To prove religious discrimination in the workplace, you need to provide evidence that shows you were treated unfairly because of your religious beliefs or practices. Some ways to gather evidence include: keeping a written record of all incidents (including the date, time, location, what happened and any witnesses), saving any emails or other communications, and obtaining medical or counseling records that document emotional or physical harm from the discrimination. You may also wish to work with an experienced employment law attorney.

Can my employer fire me for my religious beliefs?

No, under federal law in the United States, an employer can’t fire an employee because of their religious beliefs. Employers also must make reasonable accommodations for employees' religious beliefs and practices, as long as doing so doesn’t create an undue hardship for the employer.

Can an employer make you do something against your religion?

Under federal law in the United States, an employer can’t require an employee to do something that goes against their sincerely held religious beliefs, unless doing so would create an undue hardship for the employer. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. For example, an employer may be able to require an employee to do something that goes against their religious beliefs if it’s necessary for the job and there’s no reasonable alternative. In addition, an employer may be able to require an employee to do something that goes against their religious beliefs if the employee is working in a safety-sensitive position and the religious belief would create a safety risk.

Disclaimer: This article is provided as general information, not legal advice, and may not reflect the current laws in your state. It does not create an attorney-client relationship and is not a substitute for seeking legal counsel based on the facts of your circumstance. No reader should act based on this article without seeking legal advice from a lawyer licensed in their state.

This page includes links to third party websites. The inclusion of third party websites is not an endorsement of their services.

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