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October 30, 2023 Employment Law

A Guide to Religious Discrimination in Employment

Religion is not a topic that arises regularly in most secular workplaces. However, religious discrimination is nonetheless a persistent problem. While exact data is unavailable, many Americans see religious discrimination as widespread. According to a 2019 Pew poll, 56% of respondents thought that there was “a lot” of discrimination against Muslims, 24% said the same of Jews, and 18% said the same of Evangelical Christians. Fortunately, American workers are protected from employment discrimination based on religion through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Anyone with questions or concerns should discuss their options with a Richmond employment lawyer

Entities Covered by Federal Religious Anti-Discrimination Law

The vast majority of American workers are covered by Title VII and its prohibitions on religious discrimination. The Act applies to all public and private sector employers with at least 15 employees, as well as labor unions, employment agencies, and apprenticeship programs. The one major exception to the religious discrimination provision of Title VII applies to religious organizations (discussed in more detail below). 

What Is a “Religion?” 

The threshold question when evaluating religious discrimination claims under Title VII is whether the employee’s belief is religious in nature. Generally, “religion” includes religious belief and its associated observances and practices. A religion for legal purposes generally has the following three attributes: 

  1. It addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters
  2. It is comprehensive in nature; it consists of a belief system as opposed to an isolated teaching
  3. It can often be recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs 

This definition encompasses both theistic and non-theistic beliefs but excludes social, political, and economic philosophies. 

When Is a Religious Belief “Sincerely Held?”

The second threshold question with Title VII claims religious discrimination claims is whether the employee’s religious belief is sincerely held. This requirement is intended to exclude religious discrimination claims made with ulterior motives — for example, an employee seeking an accommodation for secular, rather than religious, reasons. Objective evidence of a religious discrimination claimant’s sincerity of belief is practically impossible to obtain, so courts typically presume that the stated religious belief is not in dispute absent evidence to the contrary. 

Types of Illegal Religious Discrimination 

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. It makes the following behaviors unlawful: 

  1. Failing or refusing to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s…religion 
  2. Limiting, segregating, or classifying employees or applicants in any way that would deprive the individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee because of such individual’s…religion. 

These provisions of Title VII form the basis for many claims of employment discrimination, including race discrimination and sex discrimination.  

Direct Religious Discrimination 

Direct religious discrimination is the simplest and most obvious form. It generally occurs when an employer takes an adverse action against an employee or applicant based on that employee or applicant’s religion. Examples of direct religious discrimination include: 

  • Refusing to hire individuals of a certain religion 
  • Paying employees of a certain religion less than other employees
  • Assignment of employees of a certain religion to less desirable work tasks
  • Failure to promote employees of a certain religion 
  • Terminating an employee of a certain religion due to that employee’s religion 
  • Refusing to make a reasonable accommodation based on religion 
  • Retaliating against an employee for complaining of religious discrimination 

Even though the above examples are obviously adverse actions, it can be difficult to prove that such actions were taken due to religious discrimination. However, a Richmond employment lawyer can help you prove your case. 

Indirect Religious Discrimination 

Discrimination is not always obvious. In some cases, employers can institute facially neutral policies that nonetheless have an adverse effect on employees of a certain religion. This type of discrimination is known as “disparate impact” discrimination, and it tends to be more insidious than direct discrimination. Examples of indirect discrimination could include: 

  • Work schedules that prevent time off for religious observance 
  • Dress codes that exclude certain types of religious wear 
  • Requiring employees to sign contracts or agreements that contain statements that may violate their religious beliefs 
  • Requiring employees to engage in activities that may violate their religious beliefs 

Hostile Work Environment 

A hostile work environment is one in which a member of a protected class faces harassment that is sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter the conditions of employment by creating an objectively hostile or abusive work environment. The concept often arises in sex discrimination and sexual harassment claims, but it is broadly applicable to all forms of employment discrimination. In the religious context, a hostile work environment could be shown where there was a consistent and pervasive pattern of: 

  • Jokes or mockery of an employee’s religion 
  • Derogatory remarks about members of an employee’s religion 
  • Requests from coworkers to remove religious clothing or jewelry 
  • Attempts to proselytize or convert an employee

Again, proving that such actions constitute a pattern can be difficult and requires extensive evidence. If you are working in a hostile work environment, a Richmond employment lawyer can help you document your case. 

Exceptions to Federal Religious Anti-Discrimination Law

Under Title VII, religious organizations — including religious corporations, associations, educational institutions, and societies — are exempt from the Act’s religious discrimination prohibition. Such entities are permitted to hire only individuals of a certain religion to perform work connected to carrying out the entities’s activities. However, this exception applies only to organizations with a purpose and character that is primarily religious.   

Speak to a Richmond Employment Lawyer for More Information  

Religious discrimination claims are difficult, but not impossible, to prove. The best way to maximize your chances of success is to have an experienced attorney on your side who can effectively prosecute your case. To get started, please contact a Richmond employment lawyer at Pierce / McCoy by calling 804-502-2320 or using our online contact form