America is a melting pot of nationalities and religions. People in our country come from all walks of life and embrace many types of faith. The nature of faith is highly personal and can affect how we spend our time on certain days of the year, how we dress, and how we act toward one another. Religion inspires passionate debates among followers of different traditions—and there is nothing wrong with that as long as we do not allow our beliefs to cause us to harm one another. When we treat one another badly or differently because of our various faiths, people get hurt. And never is this more true than in a work environment.
That is why religion and national origin are protected classes under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Employers are not allowed to practice religious discrimination. We have all heard that before. But what does that mean in actual practice? Today we look at six facts about religious belief discrimination that can be unknown or misinterpreted by employers and employees alike.
Religious Discrimination Fact #1: Religion Is Defined Broadly
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects certain classes of people from discrimination in the workplace. One of these protected classes is religion. In other words, employers cannot discriminate against people based on their faith when it comes to activities like:
- Recruiting people,
- Promoting people,
- Disciplining employees,
- Assigning employees to various roles or departments, and
- Providing benefits.
However, this prohibition against belief discrimination extends farther than most realize. Most of us know the law protects members of established and well-recognized traditional religions such as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. But we may not recognize that the law also protects non-organized and non-traditional belief systems as well as those who have no faith system at all. It covers theistic as well as non-theistic belief systems. Non-theistic beliefs are those that do not involve a deity or God of any type. Instead, they involve moral and ethical convictions that are held as strongly and passionately as any traditional religious belief.
Fact #2: Employers Must Make Reasonable Accommodations
Employers must not only refrain from religious discrimination, they must also work to provide accommodations for an employee’s religious practices whenever possible. For instance, an employer cannot enact a policy that seems general and inoffensive on its face but, in fact, stops employees from practicing their faith. So if an employer institutes a policy requiring all personnel to work at least one Sunday per month, that employer is discriminating against their Christian employees who require Sundays off to attend church. This employer must make reasonable accommodations for such religious observations. Other examples of accommodations that employers can reasonably make are:
- Flexibility in scheduling to accommodate religious observances;
- Lateral job reassignments if an employee requests one for religious reasons;
- Voluntary shift swapping amongst employees for religious purposes; and
- Exceptions to any dress code or grooming requirements for religious reasons.
However, employers can claim undue hardship if an employee’s requirements cost the company too much money or burden other employees. Examples include when accommodating a religious practice:
- Diminishes the productivity of the employee;
- Impairs the safety of the workplace;
- Infringes on other employees’ rights, benefits, or ability to do their jobs;
- Results in coworkers having to perform the accommodated person’s share of burdensome or hazardous work tasks;
- Conflicts with other workplace regulations;
- Transgresses other laws;
- Violates job rights earned through seniority; or
- Violates job rights earned through a collective bargaining agreement.
In any of these instances, an employer can claim undue hardship and not face legal repercussions for illegal discrimination.
Fact #3: Mandatory Training May Violate Civil Rights Act
Many companies are beginning to hold training and workshops designed to help employees cope with the stresses of everyday life. The theory is that these programs help reduce stress, burnout, and job fatigue, thereby leading to a happier and more productive workforce. Some of these programs encourage meditation, biofeedback, yoga, the use of affirmations and mantras, and any number of additional methods.
Because some techniques originated in the middle or far east, employees may feel the practices conflict with their religious beliefs. If so, that employee should inform the company that the training conflicts with their religion. The employer should then exempt them from attending. To deny the request would likely violate anti-discrimination laws.
Fact #4: Some Organizations Are Exempt
Religious organizations that exist to promote and support their faith are allowed to discriminate based on religious beliefs. In other words, the law cannot force a Christian school to hire Jewish teachers and vice versa. As long as the organization’s purpose is religious in nature, hiring those of the same faith is permitted.
Fact #5: Employers Can Prohibit Proselytizing at Work
Under certain circumstances, employers can ban proselytizing at work. For instance, employers can prohibit evangelizing if it:
- Interferes with the employee’s work;
- Causes other employees to be less productive;
- Makes it appear as if the employee is expressing the employer’s or company’s own beliefs;
- Makes customers or clients uncomfortable; or
- Disrupts business in any way.
In other words, employers do not have to endure preaching or proselytizing if it interferes with the operations of the business in any significant way.
Fact #6: Retaliation Is Unlawful
If an employee files a complaint that claims the employer discriminated against them based on their religion, the employer cannot retaliate. An employer’s attempts to cut the employee’s hours, transfer them to a less desirable position, pass them over for promotion, or in any way punish them for asserting their legal rights is unlawful. This prohibition against retaliation applies to employees who file a claim, participate in a discrimination investigation, or testify in any discrimination case against the employer.
Contact the Professionals
The lawyers at the Smithey Law Group are here to protect your rights in the workplace. If you believe your employer has discriminated against you because of your religion, we can help you understand and pursue your legal rights. If you are an employer who has questions regarding compliance, we can help you understand the law and implement the appropriate policies in your workplace. Call us at 410-919-2990 or contact us online today.