Religious discrimination can take many forms. If you have been denied work or a promotion, harassed at work, or denied an accommodation at work because of your religious beliefs or practices, or because of your lack of certain religious beliefs you may have recourse. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) prohibit many employers from engaging in religious discrimination in the workplace. To find out more about what religious discrimination is and how you may be protected, read below.
What is religious discrimination?
Religious discrimination is treating individuals differently in their employment because of their religion, their religious beliefs and practices, and/or their request for accommodation (a change in a workplace rule or policy) of their religious beliefs and practices. It also includes treating individuals differently in their employment because of their lack of religious belief or practice. The law protects not only people who belong to traditional organized religions such as the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or other faiths, but all people who have sincerely held religious, ethical, or moral beliefs. If you have been rejected for employment, fired, harassed or otherwise harmed in your employment because of your religion, your religious beliefs and practices, and/or your request for accommodation of your religious beliefs and practices, you may have suffered unlawful religious discrimination.
Some workers experiencing religious discrimination may also experience other forms of illegal discrimination, such as national origin discrimination, immigration/citizenship status discrimination, and/or race discrimination. There are typically three main forms of religious discrimination in the workplace: (1) employment decisions based on religious preference (2) harassment based on religious preferences and; (3) failing to reasonably accommodate religious practices. Some examples of potentially unlawful religious discrimination are:
- Hiring/firing/promotion: This type of discrimination entails making employment decisions based upon someone’s faith, or lack thereof. This could be refusing to hire an employee because he or she is a Seventh-Day Adventist or Orthodox Jew and observes a Saturday Sabbath; firing an employee after he or she misses work to observe a religious holiday; promoting an employee only if she is willing to attend church regularly; transferring an employee to a position with less public contact because he is a Rastafarian who wears dreadlocks; not giving an employee a raise until he stops discussing religious beliefs with other employees during free time such as breaks or lunch.
- Harassment: Harassing individuals due to their religion can include making fun of employees or telling them they are violating the company’s dress code because they wear religious clothing such as yarmulkes, turbans, or hijabs (head scarves); repeatedly mocking a person because of his or her strong, Christian beliefs; ridiculing a Muslim employee for refusing pork at a company picnic; making efforts repeatedly to “save the soul” of a fellow employee who is an atheist.
- Failure to accommodate: Denial of religious accommodation is the most common form of workplace religious discrimination. This type of discrimination can include requiring an employee to work on his Sunday Sabbath, even though other employees are willing to trade shifts with him; forcing an employee to remove her hijab (scarf) to comply with the company’s dress code even though other employees wear baseball caps on the job; not allowing employees to display religious icons or other expressions of religious belief in their workspaces, although employees are allowed to display other types of personal items.
Religion-based EEOC discrimination cases have significantly increased in recent years. Between 1997 and 2015, religion-based claims have risen by 41%, and payouts have increased approximately 174%. If any of these things have happened to you on the job, you may have suffered illegal religious discrimination.
Which federal law covers religious discrimination?
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) is a federal law that protects individuals from discrimination based on religion. Title VII makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment, such as promotions, raises, and other job opportunities.
Title VII also requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of an employee or prospective employee, unless to do so would create an “undue hardship” upon the employer. Flexible scheduling, voluntary substitutions or swaps, job reassignments, and lateral transfers are examples of ways of accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs.
Put simply, this means that employers cannot treat employees more or less favorably due to their religion, and employees cannot be required to participate in, or refrain from participating in, a religious activity as a condition of employment. Beyond this, employers must also take steps to prevent religious discrimination from other employees as well. Finally, employers may not retaliate against employees for asserting their rights under Title VII.
In addition to the federal law, most states also have laws that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of religion. Some states may also provide additional protections for workers against religious discrimination and may provide additional requirements beyond those required under federal law for accommodating the religious practices of employees. For more information, please see our page on state religious discrimination laws.
What is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act?
Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993. Under the RFRA, if the Federal government passes a general law that imposes a burden on anyone’s exercise of religion, the law must meet a strict scrutiny analysis where 1) the new law must act to serve a “compelling interest” and 2) the government must use the least restrictive means to achieve that compelling interest.
State versions of the RFRA have been popping up all across the United States. Twenty states currently have these laws, including Connecticut, sometimes made by a legislative statute and sometimes made through a court decision.
Recently, the state RFRAs have been in the news, after Indiana received backlash for passing its’ religious freedom law. In practice, some state’s RFRAs have become a way for lawmakers to discriminate based on sexual orientation by using religion as an excuse to challenge or opt out of state and local laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination.
Who enforces the law?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the agency of the federal government responsible for investigating charges of job discrimination related to religious discrimination or lack of accommodation in workplaces of 15 or more employees. Most states have their own agencies that enforce state laws against discrimination.
Who is protected under the law?
Title VII covers all private employers, state and local governments, and educational institutions that employ 15 or more individuals. Title VII also covers private and public employment agencies, labor organizations, and joint labor management committees controlling apprenticeship and training.
Under state laws that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of religion, however, the minimum number of employees needed to bring a claim varies by state. For more information, please see our page on the minimum number of employees needed to file a claim under your state law.
Anti-discrimination protections apply to job applicants as well as current workers. If you are a current employee and are fired, not promoted, or paid at a lower rate, you are protected under the law. If you are not hired because of your religious beliefs, you are also protected.
It is important to note that the laws intention is to provide protection for a broad spectrum of religious practices and beliefs, not only those aligning with an organized religion. Simply because no official religious organization to which the individual proclaims to belong exists does not determine whether the belief is religious or not. So long as the religious belief is sincerely held, it does not matter if it is logical or comprehensible to others.
What should I do, as an employee, to avoid or resolve religious conflicts at work?
In addition to employers doing their due diligence to prevent and/or resolve religious conflicts, employees seeking to observe their religious practices also have a responsibility to do their part to help the situation. To do this, an employee should tell his or her employer about any religious commitments or practices at the time the job is accepted or immediately upon becoming aware of the need for the accommodation. Employees must make this clear because vague objections will usually not suffice. Thus, if you request an accommodation, do it in writing. Explain the reason for accommodation and what kinds of accommodation you suggest. Keep copies of everything you send and receive from your employer, as well as copies of information supplied from your church or religious leaders.
What can I do if I am being discriminated against or denied an accommodation for my religious practices?
If you continue to be denied an accommodation after a reasonable request, you may want to file a grievance. If you are a union member, you may be able to file a formal grievance through the union. Try to get a shop steward or other union official to help you work through the grievance process. Some employers have policies for handling a dispute regarding religious accommodations. You may be able to resolve the dispute at your job internally. Find out what the employers’ policies are by looking in your employee manual or other sources of personnel policies. Your employer’s human resources department may be able to help.
However, even if you file a grievance with your employer, the deadlines to file in court or with an administrative agency still apply, so be sure not to miss them.
Does my employer, or prospective employer have a responsibility to provide me with an accommodation, when they reasonably know I need one, even if I did not ask for one?
Yes. In a recent case before the Supreme Court, a woman has declined a sales associate job because her hijab violated Abercrombie’s “look policy”, even though the job applicant was not informed of this policy. In this case, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, the Court held that if management has even a suspicion about an applicant or an employee’s religious views and/or need for an accommodation, it may violate Federal civil rights laws to not hire or accommodate, that applicant or employee, while enforcing a completely neutral job rule. So even if a job applicant or employee does not inform the management about a religious practice, the employer still must make religious accommodations for that applicant or employee if they believe the worker follows a certain religious belief or practice, even if doing so contradicts neutral company policies. However, the employer is only obligated to provide an accommodation so long as it will not cause the employer an ‘undue hardship.’
This changes the notion that employees must first request the accommodation and puts forth the new standard that so long as the employer had even a remote suspicion that an accommodation would be needed, it must provide that accommodation. If a job applicant or an employee does not get hired or faces an adverse employment action, they only need to show that their need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.
However, in EEOC v. Baystate Med. Ctr., Inc., a complaint was filed on June 2, 2016 alleging that a hospital in Massachusetts discriminated against an employee who failed to obtain a flu shot due to religious reasons and raised concern to the alternative of wearing a face mask at work. According to the complaint, Baystate’s policies apply to all employees including those who don’t come into contact with patients. Employees who failed to comply with the policy for religious or other reasons were required to wear a face mask or they were placed on unpaid leave, without job protection, until they complied with the policy or the flu season ended, the EEOC asserts. The case is still being litigated; however, this case notes that employers may question the sincerity of an employee’s alleged religious belief. This case will likely resolve the issue on what is considered a “reasonable accommodation” for issues involving religious beliefs and vaccinations. Many are predicting that because the hospital’s main duty is to protect their patients, that the proposed accommodation will be viewed as reasonable. Please check back at a later date for further information.
Can my employer prevent me from taking off on religious holidays or my day of worship?
You should start by letting your employer know that there is a conflict between your religious observances and your work schedule. When your employer’s workplace policies interfere with your religious practices, you can ask for what is called a “reasonable accommodation”: a change in a workplace rule or policy which would allow you to engage in a religious practice without conflicting with your work obligations.
Your employer is required to provide you with such an accommodation unless it would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer’s business, defined as an accommodation that is too costly or difficult to provide. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) who oversees these types of claims, has interpreted an undue hardship to mean anything more than regular administrative costs, anything that reduces workplace efficiency or impairs workplace safety, anything infringing on other employees’ job rights or causes those said employees’ to carry the accommodated employee’s share of burdensome work, or if the proposed accommodation conflicts with another law or regulation. Thus, employers are obligated to try in good faith to resolve the religious conflict, or identify an actual monetary or administrative expense. It is important for you to work closely with your employer to find an appropriate accommodation.
If the accommodation would impose a burden on the employer that cannot be resolved, the employer is not required to allow the accommodation. Many accommodations, however, do not require any monetary or administrative burdens. Whether your employer can accommodate your religious practices will depend upon the nature of the work and the workplace. Usually, your employer can allow you to use lunch or other break times for religious prayer. If you require additional time for prayer, your employer can require you to make up the time.
Employers must give time off for the Sabbath or holy days except in an emergency, unless the employee works in key health and safety occupations or the employee’s presence is critical to the company on any given day. This time off does not have to be paid, however. If employees don’t come to work, employers may give them leave without pay, may require the amount of time to be made up, or may allow the employee to charge the time against any other leave with pay, except sick pay.
What if workers with more seniority already have my day of worship off?
If your employer can demonstrate undue hardship, it does not have to accommodate your religious practices. One way employers can show undue hardship is if changing the seniority system to accommodate one employee’s religious practices denies another employee the job or shift preference guaranteed by the seniority system.
If this is the case in your workplace, you may wish to speak with your coworkers to see whether someone would trade shifts with you voluntarily, ask your employer whether you can make up the work at other times, or transfer into another position which either does not require that you work on the day of your religious observances.
I think I was retaliated against because I asked for religious accommodations. What is considered retaliation, and what should I do?
Retaliation occurs if an adverse employment action is taken against an employee because the employee engaged in a protected activity, such as asking for a religious accommodation, or making a complaint about religious discrimination. Title VII prohibits retaliation against employees engaging in protected activities, and this type of claim is the fastest growing complaint. Currently over 37% of all EEOC claims contain a retaliation charge, and this number is rising due to a 2006 Supreme Court ruling broadening what is considered retaliation. See Burlington Northern & Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006).
Even if an employee’s charge of discrimination is deemed unfounded, an employer may still be found guilty of retaliation in response to the filing of the original claim.
A potential employer wants to schedule my job interview on my day of worship. Can I ask that it be scheduled at another time?
Yes. Employers cannot schedule examinations or other selection activities in conflict with a current or prospective employee’s religious needs, unless the employer can prove that not doing so would cause an undue hardship. You may either choose to let your potential employer know that this poses a conflict with your day of worship, or you may just wish to tell the employer that you have a conflict and are not available on that day.
Employees also bear responsibility to resolve conflicts between job duties and religious needs, so you should let your employer know about any potential conflict either when you accept a job. If you have become more observant of your religion during your employment, and there is now a conflict that did not previously exist, you should let your employer know immediately.
In a recent job interview, the employer asked if I could work Thursday through Sunday each week. I said that I observe the Sabbath from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, and she replied that I could not be considered for the position because I wasn’t available when they most needed someone. Was this legal?
The law protects both current employees and job applicants against religious discrimination. Since asking job applicants about their availability on specific days tends to screen out employees with certain religious practices who need accommodation, employers should not ask this question during the hiring process.
The best way for the employer to gather this information is for the employer to state the normal work hours for the job and, after making it clear that you are not required to indicate the need for any religious-related absences during the scheduled work hours, to ask whether you are otherwise available to work those hours. Then, after a position is offered, but before you are hired, your employer can inquire into the need for a religious accommodation and determine whether an accommodation is possible.
I told my supervisor that I need Saturday off for religious reasons, but he doesn’t believe me and started asking all kinds of personal questions about my religious beliefs. Do I have to answer him?
In most cases whether or not a practice or belief is ‘religious’ is not at issue. If it is an issue, your employer has some room to ask you about your beliefs, to determine that they are sincere and religious beliefs.
Religious practices are not just those required by church or other religious group, but include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. The fact that no religious group holds such beliefs or that religious groups to which others in the workplace belong may not accept such beliefs will not determine whether the beliefs are ‘religious’ in nature. Although this is very subjective, your employer has the right to try to figure out if the employee’s beliefs are ‘religious’ by gathering information about your beliefs and their role in your life.
The law also requires that your beliefs be “sincerely held.” An employer is likely to be skeptical if, for example, after the employer announces that Sunday work will no longer be paid at double time, you suddenly develop a religious objection to working Sundays after doing so for years. The employer is entitled to ask some questions to determine the sincerity of your religious beliefs or practices, such as: Which religion is the source of this belief? For how long have you believed that you cannot work on Sundays (or your Sabbath day)? Have the strength or nature of your religious beliefs changed recently? While the employer should not be unreasonable in trying to figure out whether your beliefs are “sincerely held,” you should be prepared to respond to such questions, especially if your religious beliefs have recently changed or evolved to present a new conflict with work policies and practices.
Can I be denied employment by a religious organization on religious grounds?
Under certain circumstances, some religious institutions enjoy exemptions from federal laws covering religious discrimination. If the organization is a religious corporation, association, educational institution or society, then it is allowed under Title VII to hire only individuals of a particular religion to “perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution or society of its activities.” For example, a Catholic school or university can require that all of the teachers it hires be Catholic.
While such exemptions may provide a defense to a discrimination claim based upon religion, religious institutions are not permitted to discriminate on grounds other than religion merely because of the institution’s religious character. Therefore, a Baptist institution could hire only Baptists, but could not refuse to hire African-Americans or applicants with disabilities.
Some courts have ruled recently that such religious organizations can legally discriminate against employees who do not subscribe or conform to their beliefs. In two cases involving gay employees who were terminated after their employers learned about their sexual orientation, courts upheld the right of both religious employers to terminate those employees because homosexuality was incompatible with the organizations’ religious values. However, both cases occurred in states without a state law making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. The outcome might have been different in states with these laws. Religious employers have also been allowed to fire pregnant employees for engaging in premarital sex where it was against the beliefs of the religion, but were required to show that all employees, including men or women who were known to engage in premarital sex (even without a resulting pregnancy) were treated similarly.
Can I dress according to my religious customs or beliefs on the job?
If an article of clothing that you wear, such as a turban, hijab, or yarmulke, is required by your religion, you should ask your employer for a religious accommodation to wear it at work. Your employer has a legal obligation to grant your request if it does not impose a burden, or an “undue hardship,” under Title VII.
Your employer may try to justify denying you the ability to wear your religious clothing at work based on concerns about offending or losing customers. However, customer preference is never a justification for a discriminatory practice. Refusing to hire someone because customers or co-workers may be uncomfortable with that person’s religion or national origin is just as illegal as refusing to hire that person because of religion or national origin in the first place. This prohibition applies to other employment decisions as well, including promotion, transfers, work assignments and wages.
If your employer wants to lawfully prevent you from wearing this clothing, the employer would need to show that allowing you to wear this clothing would pose an undue hardship on the business. Real or perceived customer preference would rarely, if ever, meet the undue hardship standard.
Health and safety concerns, however, may meet the undue hardship standard. For example, a factory required that assembly line workers wear pants to protect them from getting loose clothing caught in the machinery and from suffering burns. The company terminated an employee after she refused to wear pants and claimed that her religion required women to wear dresses. The court held that reasonable accommodation cannot undermine the safety of plant operations or create undue hardship on the company by increasing job hazards, and therefore the firing was determined to be lawful.
If you have been asked to remove or not wear clothing that is part of your religious identity, you may want to ask your employer for an accommodation to wear this clothing. If the employer denies that request, then you should quickly consult with an attorney or federal or state anti-discrimination agency before wearing the clothing and risking discipline or termination, as it can be difficult to undo the harm once you have been terminated or otherwise disciplined.
Can my employer restrict my religious practices during free time at work (during my breaks or lunch hour)?
It depends. A potential accommodation that is unlikely to cause the employer undue hardship is to allow you to observe your religious practices, such as prayer or Bible study, during time when it does not interfere with your work, including breaks or a lunch hour. If going to another building for prayer takes longer than the allotted break periods, you can still can be accommodated if the nature of your work makes flexible scheduling workable. But your employer can require you to make up any work time missed for religious observance. Using additional space for your religious observance, like using a conference room for prayers, would not impose an undue hardship in most circumstances. However, when the room is needed for business purposes, your employer can deny its use for personal religious purposes.
Your employer can restrict the extent to which you seek to express your religious views to coworkers and/or involve them in your religious activities. While you are entitled to express your religious beliefs, it should be in a non-coercive manner that respects the rights of other employees to hold different religious beliefs or no religious beliefs at all. Otherwise, other employees may claim that they are being subjected to a hostile, intimidating or offensive work environment, which could cause your employer to face a lawsuit because of its failure to prevent this situation from continuing.
Are religious jokes or slurs against the law?
It depends. Religious jokes or slurs, or offensive or obscene language intended to offend your religious beliefs, may be considered harassment, which courts have determined is a form of illegal discrimination. However, federal law does not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not extremely serious. The conduct must be sufficiently frequent or severe to create a hostile work environment or result in a “tangible employment action,” such as hiring, firing, promotion, or demotion.
Just like sexual harassment, religious harassment may occur in the form of “quid pro quo” harassment or a “hostile work environment”. These concepts are discussed further in our page on sexual harassment, but briefly described below:
Quid pro quo: This type of harassment occurs when a harasser seeks to exchange a “tangible employment benefit” for an individual’s compliance with the harasser’s religious demands, and when the demand is not complied with the harasser engages in an adverse employment action such as demotion or job loss.
Hostile Work Environment: This type of harassment occurs when there is offensive conduct directed at an employee due to that employee’s religion, where the conduct is so severe or pervasive that it affects the terms or conditions of the employment and the employer fails to take reasonable steps to stop the conduct. Courts will look at the totality of the circumstances to determine whether or not a hostile work environment occurred.
Under the hostile work environment claim, an employer is liable if it knew or should have known religious harassment existed and failed to implement prompt action to stop the harassment. If a supervisor was the one creating the hostile work environment, the employer is liable. The employer may use a defense, however, that the harassment resulted in no tangible adverse employment action, and that they (1) exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct the behavior and (2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any corrective opportunities provided by the employer to avoid harm otherwise.
Can I discuss my religious beliefs with coworkers?
Yes, to a point. You have the legal right to discuss your own religious beliefs with a fellow employee if you wish to do so, but you cannot do so to the point that the employee feels you are being hostile, intimidating, or offensive. Otherwise, your coworker may claim that he or she has been subjected to a hostile work environment on the basis of religion, and may have the right to sue the employer if the employer does not make you stop.
So if your coworker objects to your discussion of religious subjects or you get any hint from your coworker or others that your religious advances are unwelcome, it is time to stop. Otherwise, you may face discipline or termination from your employer, and/or become involved in a lawsuit or administrative proceeding.
What do I do if a coworker is making me uncomfortable by talking about religious matters?
Your coworker has the legal right to discuss religious beliefs with you or other employees if he or she wishes to do so. However, your coworker cannot persist to the point of being hostile, intimidating, or offensive. Otherwise, you can claim that you have been subjected to a hostile work environment on the basis of religion, and may have a valid legal claim against your employer if the employer does not make your coworker stop.
When confronted by a coworker who wants to discuss religious matters, the first step is to let that person know that the discussion is making you uncomfortable and you do not want to continue discussing religion. That may resolve the problem, as your coworker might not have understood your objections or discomfort with the subject. If the problem continues, however, you may need to notify your supervisor or your company’s human resources department. Your company should have a policy for dealing with harassment complaints, including complaints of religious harassment, and once your employer is aware of the problem, it must take steps to address it.
What if my personal beliefs or decisions offend my employer’s religious beliefs? (for example, I’m gay; divorced; atheist; unmarried and pregnant; in a relationship with someone who is married, etc., and my boss does not approve.)
Courts have determined that the freedom not to believe is also a religious belief protected by Title VII and entitled to accommodation. If you work for a non-religious employer, your employer may find it difficult to maintain a legitimate business justification for policies or practices which discriminate against someone for their lack of religious beliefs. The personal religious beliefs of one supervisor or even the company’s owner would rarely, if ever, be a legitimate basis for discrimination in this situation.
However, some courts have held that religious organizations or organizations working with youth may discriminate against employees who do not subscribe to the organization’s principles, as long as those principles have been universally applied to all employees. For example, since religious organizations have specific principles condemning premarital sex, they have been allowed to terminate unmarried pregnant employees on the basis that they were terminated for engaging in premarital sex. Similarly, religious organizations have been allowed to terminate gay employees if homosexuality was incompatible with the religious organization’s beliefs.
If my employer bases business objectives/work objectives based on religious principles, is this a form of unlawful discrimination?
A private employer does not discriminate based on religion if they based their business objectives or work objectives on religious principles. Individual employers are free to practice their religion. However, it can become unlawful if the employer gives the perception that one must agree with the employer’s religious views in order to become employed or advance in their job.
My religion prevents me from paying union dues. What do I do?
An employee whose religious practices prohibit payment of union dues to a labor organization cannot be required to pay the dues, but may pay an equal sum to a charitable organization. If you do not object to all of the union’s work, but merely the portion spent advocating in favor of a cause you do not support, another possible accommodation is discounting your union dues in proportion to the amount of money spent on the objectionable union activity.
If this is part of your religious beliefs, you should let your employer and your union know this so that dues will not be withheld from your paycheck, and also make the appropriate arrangements for either paying your dues to a charitable organization or making a discounted dues payment.
My employer wants to me to enter a training program that violates my religious beliefs. Is that legal?
Some companies have recently added an element of spirituality to their training programs that some employees object to because these programs may conflict with their own religious beliefs. These “new age” training programs, designed to improve employee motivation, cooperation, or productivity through meditation, yoga, biofeedback, or other practices, may be in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws.
Employers must accommodate any employee who gives notice that these training programs are inconsistent with the employee’s religious beliefs, whether or not the employer believes there is a religious basis for the employee’s objection. If you are required to participate in such a program, and believe there is a conflict, you should let your employer know immediately so that an accommodation can be devised. You may be able to skip all or part of the program that focuses on spirituality, or to participate in an alternative non-spiritual program that will accomplish the same goals.
My employer wants me to attend a diversity program, but it is against my beliefs, do I have to attend?
Probably not. Diversity programs, where a workplace initiates programs that promote acceptance of certain people, like gay or lesbian individuals, or handicapped individuals, in the workplace are becoming more common. Some employees object to attending because they believe this type of a program promoting different lifestyles is offensive to their religion, where they have a sincerely held religious belief against a particular lifestyle, such as unwed mothers or varying sexual orientations. While the law is still evolving in this area, currently an employer must accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs, so long as it does not cause an undue hardship. If you are required to attend a diversity program that conflicts with your religious beliefs, you should let your employer know immediately, and you may be able to skip all or part of the program.
My supervisor wants me to attend church services, but I would prefer not to. What do I do?
Your supervisor has the legal right to discuss your religious beliefs with you or other employees if he or she wishes to do so. This may include an invitation to participate in church services. However, your supervisor cannot persist to the point of being hostile, intimidating, or offensive. Also, your supervisor cannot make any aspect of your employment, such as pay raises, promotions, or job assignments conditional on you attending his or her church.
If the employer does not make your supervisor stop in this situation, you could claim that you have been subjected to a hostile work environment on the basis of religion, and may have the right to initiate legal action against your employer. If a term or condition of your employment, such as a pay raise or promotion is affected by religion, your employer may be liable for the supervisor’s action.
When confronted by a supervisor who wants to discuss religious matters or for you to participate in church services, the first step is to let that person know that the discussion is making you uncomfortable and that you do not want to talk further about religion nor attend church services. That may resolve the problem, as your supervisor might not have previously realized your objections or discomfort with the subject. If, however, the problem persists or your employment starts to be affected, you may need to notify another supervisor or your company’s human resources department. You could also consult with a lawyer about filing a religious discrimination claim.
Your company should have a policy for dealing with harassment and discrimination complaints, including complaints of religious harassment and discrimination. Once your employer is aware of the problem, it must take steps to address it.
I am a clergy member. Can I bring a religious discrimination claim?
Clergy members are generally unable to bring claims under federal employment discrimination laws regarding religious discrimination. However, this ministerial exception applies only to employees who perform essentially religious functions.
I heard my employer could prevent me from accessing contraceptives on my health plan. Is this true?
Sometimes. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the Supreme Court held in a 5-4 decision, that closely held corporations whose owners are religious cannot be required to pay for contraceptive coverage. In deciding this case, the Court made a statutory, not constitutional, interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), explained above.
The Court held that a closely held corporation is a person who can exercise religious beliefs under the RFRA; that the birth control mandate under the Affordable Care Act puts a substantial burden on the company’s religious beliefs; and there are other less restrictive options to achieve the Government’s objectives without interfering with the company’s religious liberties.
While many questions relating to this case are still arising, this case essentially stands for the notion that a company can have sincere religious beliefs and based on those religious beliefs can eliminate the right for female employees to access contraceptive coverage through employer-covered health plans. Although the Hobby Lobby case was about insurance coverage for contraception, the decision opened the door for many state RFRAs to be used as tools for religious exemptions.
Could my employer be exempt from Title VII religion provisions?
An employer can be exempt from Title VII’s religion provisions if they are a religious organization or a religious educational institution. Religious organizations are allowed to give employment preference to members of their own religion, but this exception applies only to institutions whose “purpose and character are primarily religious.”
What are the remedies available to me if I have been discriminated against because of my religious beliefs?
Victims of religious discrimination can recover remedies that include:
- back pay
- front pay
- compensatory damages (emotional pain and suffering)
- punitive damages (damages to punish the employer)
- other actions that will make an individual “whole” (in the condition she or he would have been in if not the discrimination had never occurred).
Remedies also may include payment of:
- attorneys’ fees
- expert witness fees
- court costs
An employer may be required to post notices to all employees addressing the violations of a specific charge and advising them of their right to be free of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. If necessary, such notices must be accessible to persons with visual or other disabilities that affect reading.
The employer also may be required to take corrective or preventive actions with regard to the person(s) responsible for the discrimination, take steps to minimize the chance it will happen again, as well as stop the specific discriminatory practices in the case. Your state law may allow for greater or different remedies than federal law.