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What Does the Law Say about Religion in the Workplace?

The First Amendment ensures Americans are free to practice whichever religion they choose and not be forced to worship according to the government, but this does not give everyone the freedom to do anything they want regarding religious practices.

This is especially true in the workplace. Employers cannot discriminate based on religion, but they can require an employee’s work be completed satisfactorily and that company policies be followed. It’s easy to see why religion might cause some strife in the workplace, especially when you take into account how much of a person’s daily activities might be affected by his or her religion.

Employers are not supposed to discriminate based on an employee’s religion. There are three types of discrimination related to religion that can occur in the workplace:

The first is disparate treatment discrimination. This occurs when there is overt discrimination and employees of a certain religion are treated differently. For instance, if an employer has a policy of not hiring or promoting people of a particular religion, the law would consider it discrimination. There are, however, instances in which employers whose business purpose is religious in nature, and some are permitted to require certain employees to adhere to a particular faith.

The next kind of discrimination is disparate impact discrimination. In this instance, there is no specific policy intended to treat a religion unequally, but policies still affect a person’s ability to adhere to religious beliefs.

The third type of discrimination is hostile work environment discrimination. This occurs when an employer allows a hostile attitude in the workplace toward a particular faith. For instance, if co-workers harass an employee based on faith to the point the environment is abusive or intimidating, the employer can be held legally responsible. Remember, discussions – even arguments – about religion are not illegal in the workplace, so to prove discrimination, there must be evidence a certain faith is targeted with insults or threats intended to harass or intimidate for a law to be broken.

Accommodating Employees Based on Religion

Employers are expected to make some accommodations regarding an employee’s religion, but there are limits. For instance, an employer would likely not be required to give an employee time off to celebrate a religious month, though scheduling accommodations for a specific date or day of the week should be granted.

Courts also look at how a request or demand related to an employee’s religion affects the purpose of the business. For instance, if a restaurant owner establishes certain requirements to protect the health and safety of restaurant patrons, employees have less “wiggle room” asking for exceptions than if an employer runs a business where the health and safety of the public is not affected.

If an employee refuses to perform a task based on religious reasons that is essential to the purpose of the business, it could be grounds for dismissal. An extreme example would be for a woman to work in an exotic dance club, but claim her religion does not permit her to remove her clothing or interact with men. It’s unlikely this scenario would develop, but that employer could argue the purpose of his or her business requires these actions to occur.

For more information about what federal laws says about religious discrimination in the workplace, visit the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions’ page of questions and answers.

Religious discrimination in the workplace is often a very thin line and can be confusing, especially when emotions and deeply held beliefs are involved. If you believe you have faced religious discrimination in the workplace, we can help. Contact Borrelli & Associates, P.L.L.C. for more information.


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