Religious Discrimination: Employees That Are Part of Religious Organizations May Not Be Protected

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Professional young female muslim worker having problem with discrimination.You probably already understand that many employers can’t punish an employee just because the employee fits within certain protected characteristics, such as religion, race, color, national origin, sex, gender, age (40 or older under federal law), disability, and genetic information. But if you have lingering questions about how religion interacts with federal employment laws, you’re right to have them. Employees that are part of religious organizations may not be protected under federal law in the same way as others.

Typical Remedies for Employment Discrimination

In general, if you suffer employment discrimination, you could receive one or multiple of the following remedies:

  • Job reinstatement,
  • A promotion,
  • Back pay,
  • Compensatory damages,
  • Punitive damages,
  • Liquidated damages, or
  • An injunction against future discrimination.

To be able to file an employment discrimination complaint under federal law, your employer normally has to have at least 15 employees that worked for them for 20 or more weeks. You can use the 20-week period in the past or current year to maintain your eligibility.

If your employer is a religious organization or institution, the rules change in significant ways, and you likely need an experienced employment discrimination legal matters attorney to determine if you are eligible to file a discrimination suit and what remedies you can receive.

How Do Federal Employment Laws Define Religious Organizations and Institutions?

Under federal law, religious organizations and institutions are entities that have a primarily religious purpose and character. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) highlights many ways you can determine if your employer possesses these qualities, including:

  • Looking for a religious purpose stated in your employer’s business formation documents (e.g., public Articles of Incorporation);
  • Looking at your employer’s daily operations;
  • Looking at the for-profit/non-profit status of your employer; and
  • Finding out if a church or religious organization supports your employer.

After you figure out whether your employer is a religious organization/institution, you have to figure out if the religious organization/institution can be held liable for the action that’s the subject of your complaint.

Employment Law Exceptions for Religious Organizations and Institutions

Not all employment discrimination laws apply to religious organizations and institutions. You want to know what these exceptions are before you file a discrimination complaint.

Religious Organizations and Institutions Can Give Preferential Treatment Along Religious Lines when Making Employment Decisions

In general, employee religious discrimination complaints can be filed when an employer gives or denies benefits to an employee (or potential employee) because of their religious affiliations. Many employees can also file religious discrimination complaints when their employer treats them differently because of their lack of religious belief/affiliation. This is not necessarily so with employers that are religious organizations/institutions. If an employer is a religious institution or organization, they can give preferential treatment to someone of the same religion over someone of a different religion. Though employees of a religious institution might not be able to make a complaint regarding religious discrimination, they might still have a claim if the employer treats them differently because of their race, color, sex, national origin, age, or disability.

Religious Organizations and Institutions Are Exempt from Almost Any Kind of Employment Discrimination Complaint If the Employee Is a “Minister”

If the law determines that you were employed as a “minister” of a religious organization or institution, you are barred from filing most kinds of employment discrimination complaints, regardless of whether a complaint is about your religion, race, sex, color, national origin, age, genetic information, or disability. This is the Ministerial Exception. Take note that “minister” has a broader definition under the law than what many people think.

Which Employees Are Ministers Under Federal Law?

We placed “minister” in quotation marks because that term likely covers more than you think it does when it comes to employment discrimination claims. Under the First Amendment, the law gives religious organizations and institutions the right to manage their ministers with little to no government interference. Factors that make an employee a minister under the law can include:

  • A job title that indicates a distinct position of engaging in religious leadership/teaching;
  • Being in a position that requires religious training and commissioning, according to the employer;
  • The employee holding themselves out as a minister (could be done by claiming tax exemption); and
  • Job duties that include conveying religious messages of the institution/organization and carrying out the organization/institution’s mission.

Figuring out if the ministerial exception applies to your case is difficult. An experienced lawyer knows how to answer this difficult question.

Some Remedies May Still Be Available to Ministers, Depending on Where You Live

The law recognizes the protection religious organizations are entitled to under the First Amendment. The law also recognizes the special relationship ministers have to religious organizations. In many situations, this means that ministers aren’t eligible to make employment discrimination claims. While ministerial employees of religious organizations and institutions don’t have the same options for making employment discrimination claims, there have been differences of opinion regarding how far the bar on complaints reaches.

At least one circuit of the Federal Court of Appeals has decided that while a ministerial employee doesn’t have the right to file a discrimination complaint regarding their employer’s adverse job decisions, they may have a right to receive damages in a hostile work environment claim. Other circuits don’t believe the government can intervene in hostile work environment claims between a minister and a religious organization/institution. There are 12 federal appellate circuits that are grouped by state. In many cases, a decision from a circuit court mainly affects only the residents of the states that circuit covers.

There’s a lot of nuance to determining whether you can file an employment discrimination complaint against a religious institution or organization. It’s important to consult an attorney about your options.

The Window of Time to File a Discrimination Claim Is Small

Generally, you have 300 days to file a discrimination claim with the EEOC (180 days in some cases). This isn’t a lot of time. With the deadline in mind, employees of religious organizations/institutions need to know whether they’re even eligible to file claims. An experienced workplace discrimination lawyer can help you determine whether you’re eligible to file a workplace discrimination claim and meet your filing deadlines.

Contact an Attorney Immediately for Answers

Our lawyers at Smithey Law Group LLC, are award-winning and highly experienced. We have the legal answers you need for your workplace discrimination questions, and we want to help. Contact us on our website, or call us at 410-881-8190 for assistance.

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Joyce Smithey, a seasoned employment and labor law attorney, has over 22 years of experience representing both employers and employees in Maryland and D.C. Her practice, rooted in a deep understanding of employment law, spans administrative hearings to federal litigation. Joyce's approach is comprehensive, focusing on protecting client interests while ensuring legal compliance. A Harvard graduate, her career began in Fortune 500 companies, transitioning to law after a degree from Boston University School of Law. Joyce's expertise is recognized by numerous awards, including Maryland’s Top 100 Women. At Smithey Law Group LLC, which she founded in 2018, Joyce continues to champion employment rights, drawing on her rich background in law and business.

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