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Religious Discrimination: What Is It?

Religious discrimination is when an employee is treated unfairly because of his or her religious beliefs or practices. Federal law prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace.

Determine what constitutes religious discrimination and the steps that employers must take to prevent it.


Religious Discrimination: What Is It?

Discrimination on the basis of religion, morals, or ethics is when an employee is treated differently because of their religious, moral, or ethical beliefs.

Making hiring or firing decisions based on an individual’s religious practices is considered religious discrimination, as is making employment terms or conditions (such as promotions or transfers) based on religion.

Discrimination on the basis of religion is applicable to organized religions such as Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism, as well as to other religions. It also applies to non-religious moral convictions that are held with the same fervor and sincerity as religious faiths. Additionally, an employer may discriminate against an employee due to his or her lack of certain religious beliefs.

While strong personal preferences or social, political, or economic beliefs may exist, they are not religious beliefs.


How Is Religious Discrimination Implemented?

Employers engage in religious discrimination when they treat an employee, or group of employees, unfairly on the basis of their religious beliefs or practices. This retaliatory treatment can take a variety of forms, including harassment and even termination.

Employment being conditional on religious activity is also a form of religious discrimination. For instance, mandating that employees attend religious services (or prohibiting them from attending religious services).

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits religious discrimination. Employers are prohibited from hiring, firing, or segregating employees on the basis of religious belief under this Act. Nor can they discriminate on the basis of religion in employment conditions. Employment conditions include decisions about promotions and job transfers, wearing clothing that does not conform to the dress code but is required by religious beliefs (such as a head covering), and providing time for religious practice.


Preventing Discrimination on the Basis of Religion

Employers cannot take religious beliefs into account when making employment decisions such as hiring, firing, choice of assignments, and lateral moves. Changes in work hours must also take religious practices into account.

Employers are required to maintain an environment free of religious discrimination in which employees can practice their religious beliefs without fear of harassment. Employers must allow employees to express their religious beliefs unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

Employers may not, in general, impose greater restrictions on religious expression than on other forms of expression that have a comparable effect on workplace efficiency.

Employers are required to provide a work environment free of religious harassment. They can accomplish this by:

  • Adopting a zero-harassment policy

  • Establishing a policy for investigating harassment complaints

  • Conducting anti-harassment training and testing on a regular basis for all employees

  • Establishing an expectation and a supportive culture conducive to a harassment-free work environment

  • Proactively reinforcing and enforcing expected behavior

  • Throughout Job Interviews

  • Asking questions during an interview with a prospective employee that prompt them to discuss their religious beliefs may be considered religious discrimination.

Additionally, if you ask any questions that compel a prospective employee to acknowledge the need for religious accommodation following hire, you may have discriminated against the employee.

However, it is legal to inform the candidate of the position’s required working hours and to inquire about the candidate’s ability to work those hours.


Religious Practices are accommodated

Along with prohibiting discrimination, the Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious practices.

For instance, reasonable accommodation may entail the following:

  • Flexible paid vacation time allows employees to attend services.

  • Schedules that are flexible to allow employees to attend religious events

  • Paid or unpaid religious observances time off

  • Employees’ ability to trade scheduled shifts

  • Employees have the right to wear religiously mandated head coverings regardless of the employer’s dress code.

  • Possibility of offering obligatory prayers at appropriate times of the day

  • Relocations and lateral moves in the workplace

  • For prospective employees, a flexible interview schedule that takes religious practices into account

  • Religious accommodation is not required if it would impose an undue hardship on the employer. If the accommodation impairs the employer’s legitimate business interests, the employer may assert undue hardship.

  • Undue hardship can take the form of violating workplace safety, infringing on the rights of other employees, or imposing an undue financial burden.


Religious Discrimination and Retaliation

It is illegal to retaliate against an individual for opposing employment practices that discriminate on the basis of religion. Additionally, employers are prohibited from retaliating against someone who files a charge of discrimination or cooperates with an investigation into religious discrimination.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigates complaints of religious discrimination and is responsible for enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws.