Discrimination based on religion has been prohibited by Title VII since its passage in 1964. Most states, including Minnesota, contain specific protections against religious discrimination. This includes protecting atheists or secular humanists from discrimination, as lack of religious faith has been interpreted to be protected against discrimination in the same manner as active faith. This protection extends to the Establishment Clause and First Amendment to the Constitution.
Despite these long-standing protections, it appears that religious discrimination is currently increasing in the United States. A recent study by the University of Washington in August 2020 found religious discrimination on the rise and that Muslims and Atheists are far more likely than those of Christian faith to experience discrimination. In May 2019, the Pew Research Center published a Survey finding that 82% of Americans adults surveyed believe Muslims are subject to discrimination, while 64% say those of the Jewish faith face discrimination.
EEOC Religious Discrimination Guidance
Perhaps responding to this phenomenon, the EEOC in November 2020 issued an update, for the first time in 13 years, to its Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination. See https://www.eeoc.gov/guidance/section-12-religiousdiscrimination. While these Guidelines do not have the force and effect of law, they provide clarity and guidance for employers on critical issues such as accommodating religious practices and grooming standards, and how to effectively respond to complaints of religious discrimination and avoid or minimize hostile environment liability. These updates include a cooperative information-sharing process between employers and employees regarding religious accommodation requests, like the interactive process required for disability accommodation requests under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
What are the Red Flags Indicating a Religious Discrimination Problem?
It is not enough for employers to turn a blind eye to the religious faith (or lack thereof) of their employees. Claiming religion has no impact on managing a workforce is the surest sign problems will emerge. That’s because an employer has an affirmative obligation to make accommodations to any sincerely held religious beliefs, which can encompass prayer breaks, clothing requirements, leniency on PTO requests based on religious practices, or granting exemptions from some work requirements (including mandatory vaccines) if the exemption is based on accommodating a religious belief or practice.
While employers have affirmative obligations to accommodate certain religious practices, they must also be vigilant in eradicating religious favoritism or allowing considerations of faith (or lack of faith) to influence decisions affecting terms and conditions of employment. In a similar vein, complaints about discrimination based on religion must be investigated thoroughly, and appropriate corrective action must be taken when violations are substantiated.
This is a delicate balance to strike. While employees must be accommodated (within reason, if no undue hardship is caused) in expressing aspects of religious faith in the workplace, there can’t be differing standards, in terms of compensations, the prospects for advancement/mentoring, or discipline, for one religious faith versus another, and those expressing a lack of religious faith can’t have this held against them.
The Path Ahead
The team at Schaefer Halleen are fully committed to doing our part to ensure that religious belief is accommodated in the workplace but is never the basis for favoritism or adverse actions, including for those employees who are openly Atheist. In our area of influence – empowering clients and advancing justice in the employment field – we are determined to represent clients subject to religious discrimination through whatever steps are necessary to vindicate their rights.