Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) prohibits employers with at least fifteen employees from discriminating against individuals because of their religion (or lack of religious belief) in hiring, firing, or any other terms and conditions of employment. Although the prohibition set out in Title VII sounds straightforward, there are several common misconceptions about what constitutes religious discrimination in the workplace.
One common misconception is that the law protects only people who belong to traditional, organized religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. The law not only protects those with traditional, organized religious beliefs, but it also protects those with “religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others.” In fact, it also protects “non-theistic ‘moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.’”
The absence of a religious belief is also protected by law. For example, it would be against the law for a devout Jewish business owner with fifteen or more employees to refuse to hire the most qualified applicant because the applicant was an atheist. However, personal views, including social, political, or economic views, are not “religion” even if they are sincerely and strongly held.
Another common misconception is that an employer must always accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs. Title VII requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of employees unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operation of the employer’s business. A reasonable religious accommodation is any adjustment to the work environment that allows the employee to practice his or her religion. Examples of religious accommodations include flexible scheduling, voluntary shift substitutions or swaps, and exceptions to dress or grooming rules.
Whether a specific accommodation would pose an undue hardship on the employer’s business depends on the individual circumstances. An accommodation may cause undue hardship if it is costly, jeopardizes workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, or infringes on other employees’ rights. An employee who needs a religious accommodation must communicate to the employer:
- That he or she needs the accommodation and;
- That the need results from a conflict between a work requirement and the employee’s religious beliefs
Lastly, there are misconceptions surrounding what types of comments and conduct constitute religious harassment prohibited by law. Religious harassment in violation of the law occurs when employees are subjected to unwelcome statements or conduct based on religion, which is so severe or pervasive that the individual harassed reasonably finds the work environment to be hostile or abusive.
It is necessary to evaluate all of the surrounding circumstances to determine whether or not particular conduct or remarks are unwelcome. Even unwelcome religiously motivated comments or conduct are not unlawful unless the victim subjectively perceives the environment to be abusive and the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive. If you think you have been a victim of religious discrimination, contact an employment attorney at Schaffer Halleen, LLC.